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Polysomnography requires an overnight stay in a sleep laboratory. During this stay, while the patient sleeps, he or she is monitored in a number of ways that can provide very useful information.

One form of monitoring is electroencephalography (EEG), in which electrodes are attached to the patient's scalp in order to record his or her brain wave activity. The electroencephalograph records brain wave activity from different parts of the brain and charts them on a graph. The EEG not only helps doctors establish what stage of sleep the patient is in, but may also detect seizures.

Another form of monitoring is continuous electro-oculography (EOG), which records eye movement and is used to determine when the patient is going through a stage of sleep called rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. Both EEG and EOG can be helpful in determining sleep latency (the time that transpires between lights out and the onset of sleep), total sleep time, the time spent in each sleep stage, and the number of arousals from sleep.

The air flow through the patient's nose and mouth are measured by heat-sensitive devices called thermistors. This can help detect episodes of apnea (stopped breathing), or hypnopea (inadequate breathing). Another test called pulse oximetry measures the amount of oxygen in the blood, and can be used to assess the degree of oxygen starvation during episodes of hypnopea or apnea.

The electrical activity of the patient's heart is also measured on an electrocardiogram, or ECG. Electrodes are affixed to the patient's chest and they pick up electrical activity from various areas of the heart. They help detect cardiac arrythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), which may occur during periods of sleep apnea. Blood pressure is also measured: sometimes episodes of sleep apnea can dangerously elevate blood pressure.

In some cases, sleep laboratories monitor the movement of limbs during sleep. This can be helpful in detecting such sleep disorders as periodic limb movements.

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