Slow wave sleep (SWS), characterized by large electroencephalographic oscillations, facilitates crucial physiologic processes that maintain synaptic plasticity and overall brain health. Deficiency in older adults is associated with depression and cognitive dysfunction, such that enhancing sleep slow waves has emerged as a promising target for novel therapies. Enhancement of SWS has been noted after infusions of propofol, a commonly used anesthetic that induces electroencephalographic patterns resembling non-rapid eye movement sleep. This paper 1) reviews the scientific premise underlying the hypothesis that sleep slow waves are a novel therapeutic target for improving cognitive and psychiatric outcomes in older adults, and 2) presents a case series of two patients with late-life depression who each received two propofol infusions. One participant, a 71-year-old woman, had a mean of 2.8 minutes of evening SWS prior to infusions (0.7% of total sleep time). SWS increased on the night after each infusion, to 12.5 minutes (5.3% of total sleep time) and 24 minutes (10.6% of total sleep time), respectively. Her depression symptoms improved, reflected by a reduction in her Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) score from 26 to 7. In contrast, the other participant, a 77-year-old man, exhibited no SWS at baseline and only modest enhancement after the second infusion (3 minutes, 1.3% of total sleep time). His MADRS score increased from 13 to 19, indicating a lack of improvement in his depression. These cases provide proof-of-concept that propofol can enhance SWS and improve depression for some individuals, motivating an ongoing clinical trial (ClinicalTrials.gov NCT04680910).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)643-652
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2023


  • Older adults
  • anesthesia
  • cognition
  • depression
  • electroencephalography
  • propofol
  • sleep
  • slow wave sleep


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