An examination of evoked K-complex amplitude and frequency of occurrence in the elderly


Ian M. Colrain SRI International, 333 Ravenswood Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025, USA (Tel.: +1 650 859 3915; fax: 650 8592743; e-mail:


The elderly consistently display lower levels of slow wave sleep (SWS), primarily because of the small amplitude of their delta activity. Given that delta electroencephalogram (EEG) and K-complexes are thought to be generated by the same mechanisms, it was hypothesized that K-complex amplitude and rate of production would be lower in the elderly. K-complex amplitude was assessed by averaging K-complex responses to auditory stimuli, and measuring the amplitude of the N550 component of the averaged evoked response. Ten young (five males and five females; mean age 23.10 ± 5.36 years) and 10 elderly adults (six males and four females; mean age=75.60 ± 4.48 years) who were neurologically healthy and free from medication spent two non-consecutive nights in the sleep laboratory. EEG was recorded from six gold plate electrodes (Fz, Fcz, Cz, Cpz, Pz and O2) referenced to A1 + A2. Tone clicks (1000 Hz), of varying intensity from 70 to 100 decibels above measured awake detection threshold, were presented binaurally during stage 2 sleep. Responses were classified according to whether they produced: a K-complex, a vertex sharp wave (VSW), both of these responses or neither response. They were then averaged separately for each response type. The elderly showed a substantially smaller N350 (averaged VSWs) and N550 amplitudes compared with the young subjects. The elderly also showed an augmented but delayed P2 component, followed by a long-lasting positive EEG shift. The smaller amplitude of the averaged K-complex N550 component is consistent with lower delta amplitudes previously reported in the elderly and with the hypothesis that K-complexes and delta activity share the same generator mechanisms. The enhanced P2 component and the long-lasting positive deflection in the EEG in the elderly indicate the existence of age differences other than smaller EEG amplitude.