A Vicious Cycle of Sleepless Nights

Sleep deprivation may increase anxiety as seen in brain scans

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) The vicious cycle is familiar to anyone with anxiety: you feel anxious, so you can't sleep, which makes you more anxious, so you can't sleep.

The link between insufficient sleep and increased anxiety is supported by a recent small and unpublished study that is being presented at a conference on sleep.

"Sufficient sleep is especially important to combat anxiety."

Lead author Andrea Goldstein, a graduate student in the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues conducted a study to see what influence sleep deprivation had on a person's anxiety while they awaited a potentially negative experience.

For the study, 18 healthy adults were given functional MRI brain scans twice. The first time, they had a "normal night of sleep," though information was unavailable on how many hours this included.

The second fMRI followed a night without any sleep at all - 24 hours of sleep deprivation.

During both fMRIs, the participants were given an emotionally-charged task which led them to anticipate being shown either an unpleasant image or a neutral image.

When the participants were sleep deprived, the fMRI scans revealed that the anticipation building up in the emotional centers of their brains was greater. The researchers reported that some centers had an increase of anticipation of more than 60 percent.

Further, those participants who were naturally more anxious to start with had an even greater response to the anticipation once they were sleep deprived.

"Anticipation is a fundamental brain process, a common survival mechanism across numerous species," said Goldstein. "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."

The study was presented June 10 at the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Boston. Because the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, its results should be regarded as preliminary and still require review by researchers in the field.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 8, 2012
Last Updated:
October 22, 2012