Insomnia is a common but highly irritating problem: the Sleep Health Foundation (SHF) estimates that 1 in 3 people will suffer from mild insomnia at one point in their lives. There are a number of causes for this disorder, including hormonal imbalances, bad sleep habits, some medications, too much caffeine and even pregnancy. And whatever the underlying cause, sleepless nights can cause a range of problems, including fatigue and tiredness, difficulty concentrating and focusing, lack of memory, mood or emotional disorders, and the increased chance of committing an error or getting into an accident.
What is even more surprising is that, according to new research, a person’s emotions can be negatively impacted by even missing just one night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation led people to lose their neutrality, the ability of the brain to separate the important from the unimportant
This new research was coming out of Tel Aviv University in Israel, where researchers were able to gain a better understanding of the specific effects that sleep deprivation has upon the brain. What they found was that, surprisingly, the negative cognitive effects began after just one night’s sleep.
During the study, 18 volunteers stayed up all night one night and got a good night’s sleep on the other. Brain imaging from MRIs and EEG were done throughout the study in order to better understand the brain activity of the participants. After each night, participants were asked to take the same test which involved tracking and identifying the movement of dots across different pictures, which were either emotionally positive, emotionally negative, or emotionally neutral in content. The combination of this test and the brain imaging was enough to get a good idea of the brain’s cognitive processing ability.
The results showed that lack of sleep negatively impacted the regulatory processing ability of the brain, and the EEG scan revealed little difference in its reaction to positive and negative images. Further testing showed that volunteers were more easily distracted by any kind of image after staying up all night, but that after a good night’s sleep, only the most emotionally charged images registered on the brain.
In short, the researchers noted that sleep deprivation led people to lose their neutrality, the ability of the brain to separate the important from the unimportant. See the brain scans and other images taken directly from the study below.
Before the study, scientists were not certain about just what mechanism in the brain was responsible for emotional impairments which happen when sleep is taken away. Dr. Talma Hadlar, one of the researchers who published this article, noted that:
“We assumed that sleep loss would interfere with the processing of emotional images and….executive functions. We were incredibly surprised to find that it significantly impacted the brain in the processing of both neutral and emotionally charged images.”
The Study in Context
The Tel Aviv research is part of a recent and growing body of evidence that ties lack of sleep or insomnia to emotional and/or cognitive dysfunction. All three studies below were published just this year:
- One study, published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine, found in their review that insomnia “poses a major threat to mental health…. Anxiety and depression are the two most negative emotions impacted by insomnia”.
- An article which appeared in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that, for patients suffering from insomnia due to tinnitus (a chronic ringing in the ears), the level of emotional and cognitive distress was directly related to how severe the insomnia was.
- Research published in the Review of Neurology found that the comorbidity between insomnia and depression is high, and that a vicious cycle begins:
Anxiety and depression can cause insomnia and the insomnia in turn can make the emotional problems worse.
In short, those who are suffering from insomnia―even for a very short time―are at an increased risk for emotional and cognitive problems as well. That is why it is important to see a doctor or other healthcare professional about this problem early on to discuss safe and effective remedies for this problem before it gets any worse.