Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sleep Deprivation Makes you Happy!

UC Berkley is making the top Google search line today. The interest is evoked by a new intriguing research, offering not widely accepted viewpoint, that sleep deprivation may offer a positive effect on your mood and psychological well-being. Everybody knows that a sleepless night can make us cranky and moody. But a lesser known side effect of sleep deprivation is short-term euphoria, which can potentially lead to poor judgment and addictive behavior, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.

According to a report from UC Berkeley’s Newscenter, UCB and Harvard researchers discovered that a night spent awake rather than asleep created heightened activity in the mesolimbic pathway, a brain circuit driven by dopamines, those neurotransmitters associated with happiness, decision-making, and motivation. The findings were published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience at

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While this link might not be widely known to the general public, it is not new and unique on the scientists’ monitor. Nearly 30 years have passed since Anna Wirz-Justice, MD, first prescribed a night without sleep for a severely depressed 80-year-old woman. "She used to just sit around all day, feeling suicidal," says the Swiss neurobiologist. "She hardly spoke or moved.''

The remedy worked.  By the next morning, the elderly woman "was talking and moving around as if she were actually another person," Wirz-Justice says. "She told me that at about two or three in the morning, she felt like a black cloud had been lifted from her shoulders."

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But there was a problem: Patients tended to relapse into depression as soon as they did get a good night's sleep. And, up today, there are no reliable approaches to preserve the sleep deprivation positive effect on a long run.

In the recent study, the researchers were also motivated by curiosity over why so many patients with clinical depression feel more positive after sleepless nights. So they used functional MRIs to study the brains of 27 healthy young adults, half of whom had slept well the previous night and the other half of whom had stayed awake all night.

“Participants viewed numerous images, including pleasant scenes (for example, bunnies or ice cream sundaes), and were asked to rate the pictures as either neutral or positive. Across the board, those who had skipped a night’s sleep gave more positive ratings for all the images while the well-rested participants gave more moderate scores,” reads the UCB Newscenter report.

The trouble is that the type of positivity prompted by all-nighters is based on short-term dopamine spikes and can thus spur overly optimistic choices that might have disastrous results. A new tattoo, a dip in the bay, or a motorcycle ride with a stranger can seem like great ideas in the blaze of that morning-after buzz.

“When functioning correctly, the brain finds the sweet spot on the mood spectrum. But the sleep-deprived brain will swing to both extremes, neither of which is optimal for making wise decisions,” said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

“After a good night’s sleep, the frontal lobe regions are strongly connected to the dopamine reward regions, but that’s not the case after a night of no sleep,” said Walker, who is also the principal investigator at UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory. Located in UC Berkeley’s psychology department, the sleep lab focuses on cognitive aspects of the sleeping brain using a multimodal imaging approach, including functional MRI, neurophysiological, and psychophysical techniques.

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“The elastic band of sleep deprivation can only be stretched so far before it breaks,” Walker warned.

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