UC Berkeley researchers have found that a lack of sleep, which is common in anxiety disorders, may play a key role in ramping up the brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying.
Neuroscientists have found that sleep deprivation amplifies anticipatory anxiety by firing up the brain's amygdala and insular cortex, regions associated with emotional processing. The resulting pattern mimics the abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders. Furthermore, their research suggests that innate worriers - those who are naturally more anxious and therefore more likely to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder - are acutely vulnerable to the impact of insufficient sleep.
"These findings help us realize that those people who are anxious by nature are the same people who will suffer the greatest harm from sleep deprivation," said Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper, to be published tomorrow (Wednesday, June 26) in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The results suggest that people suffering from such maladies as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, may benefit substantially from sleep therapy. At UC Berkeley, psychologists such as Allison Harvey, a co-author on the Journal of Neuroscience paper, have been garnering encouraging results in studies that use sleep therapy on patients with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
"If sleep disruption is a key factor in anxiety disorders, as this study suggests, then it's a potentially treatable target," Walker said. "By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations."
While previous research has indicated that sleep disruption and psychiatric disorders often occur together, this latest study is the first to causally demonstrate that sleep loss triggers excessive anticipatory brain activity associated with anxiety, researchers said.
"It's been hard to tease out whether sleep loss is simply a byproduct of anxiety, or whether sleep disruption causes anxiety," said Andrea Goldstein, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in neuroscience and lead author of the study. "This study helps us understand that causal relationship more clearly."
In their experiments, performed at UC Berkeley's Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, Walker and his research team scanned the brains of 18 healthy young adults as they viewed dozens of images, first after a good night's rest, and again after a sleepless night. The images were either neutral, disturbing or alternated between both.