Researchers Link Sleep Deprivation And Anxiety
June 26, 2013

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Make You Less Anxious

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Everyone knows what kind of effect a good night’s sleep can have on mood and new research from the University of California, Berkeley has shown that sleep deprivation can amplify activity in brain regions responsible for anxiety.

The researchers’ study, which was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that people who are naturally more anxious are more vulnerable to this effect of inadequate sleep.

“These findings help us realize that those people who are anxious by nature are the same people who will suffer the greatest harm from sleep deprivation,” said study co-author Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

The results also suggested that those suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder may significantly benefit from sleep therapy. According to a press statement, other UC Berkeley scientists have been using sleep therapy on patients with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental conditions with encouraging results.

“If sleep disruption is a key factor in anxiety disorders, as this study suggests, then it’s a potentially treatable target,” Walker said. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations.”

Previous studies have shown that sleep loss and mental disorders are frequently experienced together. The new study is the first make a causal link between sleep loss and anxiety-like brain activity, researchers said.

“It’s been hard to tease out whether sleep loss is simply a byproduct of anxiety, or whether sleep disruption causes anxiety,” said lead author Andrea Goldstein, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in neuroscience. “This study helps us understand that causal relationship more clearly.”

In their experiments, the UC Berkeley team captured brain images of 18 healthy volunteers as they viewed a series of neutral or disturbing images; once after a good night’s rest and again after a sleepless night.

While volunteers admitted to a wide range of baseline anxiety levels, none were determined to have a clinical anxiety disorder. After a full night’s rest at Berkeley’s sleep lab, participants’ brains were scanned using a functional MRI machine as they waited and then viewed 90 images during a 45-minute session.

Before showing the images, researchers primed the participants using three visual cues. A large red minus sign told participants that they were about to be shown a disturbing image, such as a death scene. A yellow circle told volunteers they were about to see a neutral image, such as a table. A white question mark, which could be followed by either a disturbing or innocuous image, was used to promote an anxious response from volunteers.

The research team found that anticipation during the white question mark caused anxiety-like activity in the emotional brain centers to soar for sleep-deprived participants, particularly in the amygdala and the insular cortex. This effect was most dramatic for those people who showed signs of being innately anxious.

“This discovery illustrates how important sleep is to our mental health,” said Walker. “It also emphasizes the intimate relationship between sleep and psychiatric disorders, both from a cause and a treatment perspective.”