Neuroimaging methods can be used to investigate whether sleep disorders are associated with specific changes in brain structure or regional activity. However, it is still unclear how these new data might improve our understanding of the pathophysiology underlying adult sleep disorders. Here we review functional brain imaging findings in major intrinsic sleep disorders (i.e., idiopathic insomnia, narcolepsy, and obstructive sleep apnea) and in abnormal motor behavior during sleep (i.e., periodic limb movement disorder and REM sleep behavior disorder). The studies reviewed include neuroanatomical assessments (voxel-based morphometry, magnetic resonance spectroscopy), metabolic/functional investigations (positron emission tomography, single photon emission computed tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging), and ligand marker measurements.
Based on the current state of the research, we suggest that brain imaging is a useful approach to assess the structural and functional correlates of sleep impairments as well as better understand the cerebral consequences of various therapeutic approaches. Modern neuroimaging techniques therefore provide a valuable tool to gain insight into possible pathophysiological mechanisms of sleep disorders in adult humans.