How sleep deprivation alters the brain to raise anxiety

Too little sleep
can lead to high anxiety
Image credit: Bing
New information from sleep experts links too little sleep to higher anxiety levels. People who are already nervous have trouble sleeping. Conversely, lack of sleep can make already nervous people even more anxious, supercharging emotional responses from altered brain processes.

Lack of sleep triggers emotional brain centers

Researchers from the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley used MRI's of the brain to find how lack of sleep triggers emotional centers in the brain; in particular, the amygdala that reacts to unpleasant events.

For the study, investigators performed functional MRI (fMRI) on 16 subjects: once after sleep deprivation and once after a good night’s sleep. They were shown either an unpleasant or neutral image while scientists looked at what happened in the brain.

For some of the study participants, sleep deprivation increased the anticipation of a negative event as much as 60 percent.

"Anticipation is a fundamental brain process, a common survival mechanism across numerous species," said Andrea Goldstein, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, in a media release.

The researchers also noted sleep deprivation had the biggest impact on people who were naturally anxious.

The study is presented at SLEEP 2012, the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS).

Goldstein said, "Our results suggest that just one night of sleep loss significantly alters the optimal functioning of this essential brain process, especially among anxious individuals. This is perhaps never more relevant considering the continued erosion of sleep time that continues to occur across society."

June 10, 2012