By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Neuroscientists suggest sleep for anxiety

by in Medicine, Research.

A man sleeps as a woman walks past an entrance to a subway station at an underground passage in central Beijing. Reuters/ Barry Huang

A man sleeps as a woman walks past an entrance to a subway station at an underground passage in central Beijing. Reuters/ Barry Huang

A UC Berkeley study suggests that sleep deprivation triggers anxiety by inducing hyperactivity in brain regions that control emotions. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that sleep therapy can help patients with anxiety disorders.

Stress and anticipation bring anxiety that can sometimes be good; if under control, anxiety might help a person focus and be more efficient. But a patient with anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or other disorders and phobias, cannot control it. The feeling of anxiety and nervousness is constant and has major negative impact on their everyday life. The socioeconomic impact is huge as about one in five adults in the U.S. are affected by such mental illnesses. What are the drivers of anxiety disorders? Why can some people control anxiety while others cannot?

Research studies have shown over the years that causes can be genetics, personality, social environment and brain chemistry. Scientists have found a network of neurons in the brain that supports affective anticipation and anxiety. More precisely, those with anxiety disorders have hyperactivity in certain regions of the brain that process emotions, including the amygdala and anterior insula cortex. On top of that, sleep deprivation amplifies the symptoms, a setback for patients because it is very common for them to suffer from sleep abnormalities.

Looking for more clues about the connection between sleep and anxiety management, Matthew P. Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, led a study that looked for differences in the activity of the amygdala and anterior insula cortex in the brains of healthy adults after sleep deprivation and after a good night’s sleep. The research team showed aversive or neutral images to 18 healthy young adults and measured the brain activity with a MRI scanner (a device using magnetic fields which can create 3D images of our body). They found that the brains of sleep-deprived subjects were hyperactive and had a typical profile of generalized anticipatory response observed in patients with anxiety disorders. In parallel, during the experiments, the subjects were notified by signs that an aversive image would be shown in the next few moments. To create uncertainty, a sign full of questionmarks preceded the images. Scientists classified the subjects into two groups of naturally anxious and naturally not anxious based on their brains’ reaction to the sign. The results showed that the group with innate anxiety (who are more prone to anxiety disorders) were more severely affected by sleep loss.

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

Until now sleep problems were considered a symptom of mental illnesses. But this study suggests that they might be a driver. And a good therapeutic strategy could be sleep therapy.