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Despite the success of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia and recent advances in pharmacotherapy, many patients with insomnia do not sufficiently respond to available treatments. This systematic review aims to present the state of science regarding the use of brain stimulation approaches in treating insomnia. To this end, we searched MEDLINE, Embase and PsycINFO from inception to 24 March 2023. We evaluated studies that compared conditions of active stimulation with a control condition or group. Outcome measures included standardized insomnia questionnaires and/or polysomnography in adults with a clinical diagnosis of insomnia. Our search identified 17 controlled trials that met inclusion criteria, and assessed a total of 967 participants using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial electric stimulation, transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation or forehead cooling. No trials using other techniques such as deep brain stimulation, vestibular stimulation or auditory stimulation met the inclusion criteria. While several studies report improvements of subjective and objective sleep parameters for different repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial electric stimulation protocols, important methodological limitations and risk of bias limit their interpretability. A forehead cooling study found no significant group differences in the primary endpoints, but better sleep initiation in the active condition. Two transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation trials found no superiority of active stimulation for most outcome measures. Although modulating sleep through brain stimulation appears feasible, gaps in the prevailing models of sleep physiology and insomnia pathophysiology remain to be filled. Optimized stimulation protocols and proof of superiority over reliable sham conditions are indispensable before brain stimulation becomes a viable treatment option for insomnia.

Original publication




Journal article


J Sleep Res

Publication Date



brain cooling, insomnia disorder, insomnia treatment, transcranial direct current stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation