Lack Of Sleep Looks The Same As Severe Anxiety In The Brain
Chronic sleep deprivation could make some people more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
If you’ve ever found that a poor night’s sleep has left you feeling not only a bit groggy, but also on edge, you aren’t alone. People with insomnia have double the risk of developing an anxiety disorder, and 70 to 80 percent of people with clinical anxiety have trouble either falling or staying asleep. However, until now, how this relationship works in the brain was unknown.
New research presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego last month revealed that missing just one night of sleep results in a pattern of brain activity that looks a lot like anxiety.
“Sleep loss triggers the same brain mechanisms that make us sensitive to anxiety to begin with—regions that support emotional processing and also regions that support emotion regulation,” says Eti Ben-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we are chronically sleep deprived, if we keep losing sleep, it could sensitize us to greater anxiety levels and help develop an anxiety disorder.”
In the new study, the researchers had 18 healthy people come into their sleep lab for two nights: one of total sleep deprivation, followed by a normal restful night. The scientists measured the sleepers’ anxiety levels in the evening and in the morning after each session. When the participants were sleep deprived, their anxiety levels increased by 30 percent the next day, with half the participants reaching the threshold for a clinical anxiety disorder.
The researchers also probed what was happening in the brain after a night of sleep loss. They put the participants in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner the next morning and showed them distressing video clips, like of child or elderly abuse, to evoke an emotional reaction. Following the night of no sleep, there was significantly more activity in emotion-generating regions of the brain, such as the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Both of these areas process negative emotions like fear, and they are hyperactive in patients with anxiety disorders.