A lack of sleep is commonly considered as a cause for a myriad of issues and illnesses, spanning from a pesky cold to weight gain. However, in more complicated problems, such as mental illness, interruptions in sleep cycles followed by sleep restoration has proven to play a therapeutic role.


When the great Thomas Aquinas said that “Sorrow can be alleviated by a good sleep”, he was not attempting to make a scientific claim, just one of common knowledge. Our blind assumption that sleep helps everything has been challenged by recent research showing that sleep deprivation may be a viable treatment for depression. Worldwide research has ‘debunked’ the long-standing notion of a good sleep being a “cure-all” medicine. Fascinatingly, researchers at Washington University have found that sleep deprivation can alter brain functioning to actually increase cognitive ability and act as short-term therapy for depression.


How have they gone about proving this counterintuitive finding? By testing cognitive functioning of two groups after a “good night’s sleep”- one group has been sleeping deprived (for 52 hours) and one well-rested. Researchers tested the activity of adenosine receptors in the brain, which are responsible for that sleepy feeling. Activation of adenosine receptors leads to the feeling of being tired by slowing neural functioning, expanding blood vessels, and relieving pressure in the brain to lull you into sleep.


Elmenhorstand colleagues at Washington University discovered that depriving and disrupting sleep can actually reset the brain’s adenosine receptors. An analogy can be drawn here to rebooting an old, overused computer after being on for too long. By depriving subjects of sleep for 52 hours, then allowing a sleep recovery of 15 hours, the “deprived group” showed replenished and better functioning adenosine receptors compared to the well-rested group. This increase in adenosine receptor availability decreased the symptoms of depression. Sleep deprivation followed by sleep recovery leads to adenosine receptor improvement and better neural functioning. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we would have this backup system. A sleep-deprived brain is likely one requiring increased cognitive function to survive.


What does this mean for the future? Perhaps an initial treatment for depression can now be a sleep deprivation and restoration cycle, rather than a daily antidepressant or counselling. This finding once again draws attention to our poor understanding of the brain, depression, and suitable treatment for more than 350 million people worldwide (World Health Organization). Much more research will be required to refine and optimize this process, and each individual may respond differently. In any case, it is a fascinating progression in our understanding of the complex human brain.


Written By: Soleil Grisé, HBSc


Reference: Elmenhorst, D., Elmenhorst, E., Hennecke, E., Kroll, T., Matusch, A., Aeschbach, D., & Bauer, A. (2017). Recovery sleep after extended wakefulness restores elevated A1adenosine receptor availability in the human brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,114(16), 4243-4248. doi:10.1073/pnas.1614677114

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