A cap that cools the brain may help people with insomnia sleep at night, a new study suggests.
In the study, insomnia patients who wore the cap slept as well as people with no sleep problems.
The findings may lead to an alternative treatment for the condition, which is usually treated with drugs or psychotherapy.
"The most significant finding from this study is that we can have a beneficial impact on the sleep of insomnia patients via a safe, nonpharmaceutical mechanism that can be made widely available for home use by insomnia sufferers," study researcher Eric Nofzinger, director of the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said in a statement.
However, the study was small, and more work is needed to confirm the results. It's unclear whether all patients with insomnia would benefit from the cap in the same way, experts say.
Cooling the brain
Patients with insomnia have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for at least one month, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Previous research has shown those with insomnia have increased brain activity when they try to fall asleep compared with those without insomnia, and that cooling the brain reduces metabolism activity. This spurred the idea for the cooling cap.
The plastic cap has tubes filled with cool water, which cool the head, putatively lowering the brain's metabolism.
In a 2009 study, Nofzinger and his colleagues showed patients who wore the cap had improvements in their insomnia.
In the new study, the researchers wanted to see whether a higher "dose" of the treatment, that is, colder water, produced a greater effect.
The study involved 12 patients with insomnia and 12 people without insomnia. The patients' average age was 45.
The researchers varied the "dose" the patients received.
Insomnia patients treated with the coldest water took 13 minutes to fall asleep, on average, and stayed asleep 89 percent of the time they were in bed. The people without insomnia took 16 minutes to fall asleep and also slept about 89 percent of the time.
The work is "fascinating" and "extremely innovative," said James Wyatt, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who was not involved in the study. However, there's a long way to go before the research could be applied in a clinical setting, Wyatt said.
There is a need for alternative insomnia treatments, Wyatt said. Only about 25 percent of those who take sleeping pills are satisfied with this treatment, and many worry about side effects or becoming dependent on the pills to sleep, Nofzinger said.
Future research should examine whether the effects of the treatment last beyond the time the patient is using the device, Wyatt said.
The study will be presented today (June 13) at a joint meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society in Minneapolis.