Understanding Trauma Nightmares Using In-Home Measurement

  • End date
    Jul 1, 2024
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    VA Office of Research and Development
Updated on 18 March 2021
substance use


Trauma-related nightmares in Veterans are associated with poor clinical outcomes, greater substance use, and increased risk of suicide. In spite of an urgent need to reduce the burden of trauma-related nightmares, the underlying physiological changes associated with them are poorly understood, and there are no clear evidence-based recommendations for their treatment. Limitations of current assessment procedures represent a barrier to improved care. In-laboratory sleep studies rarely capture nightmares, limiting the knowledge about them and their response to treatment. This study addresses these limitations by using extended, in-home sleep monitoring to capture sleep data associated with nightmare reports in Veterans, and assessing how these features are altered throughout a cognitive-behavioral nightmare treatment. Results from this study will increase understanding of trauma-related nightmares, and advance strategies for personalizing symptom management for Veterans.


There is a critical need for continued research to better understand trauma-related nightmares with the goal of developing personalized treatment plans. Limitations of current assessment procedures present a significant barrier to improved care. In-laboratory sleep studies rarely capture nightmares and cannot assess change over time, reducing the knowledge of phenotypic markers of nightmares to guide treatment. Therefore, there is a need to assess sleep over multiple nights in the home environment, where nightmares occur. This study aims to significantly enrich knowledge about trauma-related nightmares by using a zero-burden, multi-night, objective sleep measurement method within Veterans' usual sleeping environment prior to and during an evidence-based cognitive-behavioral intervention for nightmares. This study has two primary aims: 1) to identify, with greater precision than previously possible, objective features of sleep associated with trauma-related nightmare occurrences; and 2) to use the treatment for nightmares as interventional probes to determine whether and how changes in sleep physiological parameters identified in Aim 1 covary with changes in subjective nightmare frequency and severity.

The study will include 80 trauma-exposed Veterans reporting with trauma-related nightmares. Eligible participants will monitor their sleep for a week using a multi-night mattress actigraphy implemented in their home. Mattress actigraphy, which measures movements using accelerometers embedded in a mattress topper, employs no body surface sensors. Therefore, this system represents a truly zero-burden method for obtaining intensive longitudinal sleep measurement. During the week of sleep monitoring, participants also will complete one-night of polysomnography (PSG) sleep assessment to calibrate the actigraphic sleep efficiency and to identify untreated sleep apnea. These methods will be used to investigate candidate physiological parameters associated with trauma-related nightmares. After establishing the levels of these candidate markers, this project will assess the impact of a cognitive-behavioral treatment, Exposure, Relaxation, and Rescripting Therapy (ERRT), on the subset of markers which can be measured continuously over the course of the treatment. Participants will be randomized to five weeks of active treatment (ERRT; n = 40) or to five weeks of the comparison treatment (sleep and nightmare management; n = 40). Throughout the course of treatment, participants will continue to sleep while monitored by the mattress actigraphy system. Upon completion of treatment, a post-treatment and follow-up assessment will assess subjective symptom change. Results from this study will provide important information to facilitate increased understanding of the phenomenology, pathophysiology, and treatment of nightmares in trauma-exposed Veterans.

Condition Actigraphy, Nightmares, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Veteran, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia
Treatment Exposure, Relaxation, and Rescripting Therapy, Sleep and Nightmare Management
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT03974503
SponsorVA Office of Research and Development
Last Modified on18 March 2021


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Inclusion Criteria

Be a Veteran enrolled to receive VA medical care at the Philadelphia VA
Have stable housing for the duration of the study period
Have experienced any traumatic event meeting Criterion A for PTSD at least three months before the baseline assessment
Meet criteria for a current PTSD diagnosis
Self-report experiencing trauma-related nightmares at least once per week for the past month, that are mostly-remembered and that cause awakening
Self-report global sleep disturbance indicated by a score of 5 or greater on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI)
Be stable on any psychoactive medications for a minimum of two weeks before the baseline assessment

Exclusion Criteria

Inability to provide fully-informed written consent to participate and/or a bed partner does not agree to mattress recording during the in-home portion of the study
Medical conditions that limit ability to apply the treatment
e.g., needing a health aide or caregiver to record sleep diaries, unable to get out of bed without assistance
Current pregnancy and/or birth of a child within the previous 6 months
Apnea hypopnea index (AHI) > 15, indicative of moderate to severe sleep apnea, unless adherent to positive airway therapy following the baseline phase of the study
Current alcohol or illicit substance use disorders or early remission (at least 3 months abstinent)
Active suicidal or homicidal ideation
A history of any bipolar disorder spectrum disorder or psychotic disorder
Hospitalization for a mental health disorder in the past 2 months
Enrolled in current PTSD-focused treatment (e.g., Cognitive Processing Therapy or Prolonged Exposure), current nightmare treatment or a history of treatment failure with a cognitive-behavioral nightmare intervention
Veterans may also be excluded from participation if they have been identified by the local VA disruptive behavior committee to have displayed disruptive, threatening and/or violent behavior
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