Brain researchers look for cause of restless leg syndrome

Researchers have found that people with restless leg syndrome – a disorder that causes a powerful urge to move the legs, particularly at night – have reduced function in an area of the brain important for controlling movement.

Preliminary results from a new study at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) suggest that people with this disorder have up to 80 percent less function in this brain region compared with healthy people.

“This is a disorder that is thought to affect 1 in 20 people, and can severely affect quality of life, but we still don’t know very much about it,” says neuroscientist Assoc Prof Kay Double.

“This study is helping us understand what happens in the brain to cause these symptoms, which will help us find better treatments,” she says.


These brain MRIs are of a healthy person (left) and a person with restless legs syndrome (right). The nerve bundles (coloured), in a region known to be important for controlling movement, are markedly reduced in the person with RLS.













Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a disorder that causes uncomfortable sensations in the limbs.

  • it often flares up at night and disturbs sleep
  • it tends to run in families
  • it is under-diagnosed; many people don’t realise they have it (they may think the sensations are normal)
  • drug treatments are available but can sometimes increase symptoms
  • can cause daytime sleepiness, fatigue and a poorer quality of life.

The NeuRA study is using ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for changes in the structure and function of the brain.

“This is the first time that anyone has looked for these type of changes in people with restless legs syndrome,” says Assoc Prof Double.

“If we can understand what is happening in the brain, we will be one step closer to helping the thousands of Australians with restless legs get a better night’s sleep and lead a better quality of life.”