How are Insomniacs Brains' Affected by Lack of Sleep?

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Written by Alyssa Clark Surprisingly, the answer might be not at all. With 10 to 15 percent of adults suffering from insomnia, specifically speaking o...

Written by Alyssa Clark


Surprisingly, the answer might be not at all.

With 10 to 15 percent of adults suffering from insomnia, specifically speaking of middle-aged and older adults, women and/or some people who suffer from mental health problems, a UC study was recently conducted to provide a “psychological explanation of why [individuals with insomnia] may have trouble in their day-today functioning” says the study’s co-director Nathaniel Watson.

The common understanding of those who suffer from insomnia is that they don’t simply suffer at night; they suffer through their dragged-out days with overwhelming feelings of fatigue, confusion and trouble upholding a solid work or school performance. However, the evidence suggested by this recent study turns this classic understanding of insomnia on its head, and causes us to rethink if insomniac’s performance truly is inferior to non-insomniacs. Recent studies suggest that insomniacs performance does not differ in adequate ways from non-insomniacs, it simply only feels as such to the insomniac performers.

With the help of brain imaging technology, researchers evaluated 25 insomniacs and 25 normal sleepers as they performed eight-minute working memory tasks, involving the processing and storing of short-term memory. One at a time, testing subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging scans while reviewing letters projected on a screen, and were asked to identify which were repeats of letters displayed earlier in the sequence.

"They're doing the task just fine but [the insomniacs] subjective sense is sort of like they're running through mud," said Dr. Drummond. "It's just so much harder to do."

The study showed that as the information increased in difficulty, the normal sleepers had increased activity in parts of the brain such as in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while insomnia subjects didn’t. Poor sleepers seemed to struggle in turning of the brain’s “mind wandering” regions, otherwise known throughout the study as the “default mode” network which is located in the midline. Normally these regions remain active when a person is not engaged in goal-directed behavior and they are suppressed when a person switches to a task.

"For the good healthy sleepers, the harder the task becomes the more they recruited the working memory parts of the brain," he added. "The insomnia patients, in contrast, weren't able to ramp up these parts of the brain the way they should have." The subjects with insomnia had primary insomnia, meaning their difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep weren't related to a health condition, such as sleep apnea.

"I kind of wonder whether that may be a neurosignature of the experience of insomnia, where people say, 'I feel like I wasn't asleep all night,' " Dr. Buysse, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburg says, “The ultimate goal”, he said, “is to see how treatment affects the brain activity”.

"If there are particular regions in the brain that are more active in people with insomnia when they're asleep, we might think of other techniques" for treatment, he said. For example, transcranial magnetic stimulation, a method of treating disorders such as depression and anxiety, can change activity in specific brain regions.


About the Author

Alyssa Clark is the Editor of Healthcare Global


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