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What Part Of The Brain Does Insomnia Affect

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Effects On The Hypothalamus

What Makes Insomniac Brains Different?

Narcolepsy develops as a result of changes in the hypothalamus region of your brain. This small gland is located above your brain stem.

The hypothalamus helps regulate the release of hormones that affect numerous parts of your body. For example, its responsible for releasing hypocretins, which help regulate sleep.

Aside from regulating your sleep cycles, the hypothalamus also plays a role in the following processes:

  • appetite
  • emotions
  • heart rate

A rare form of narcolepsy can develop as a result of damage to the hypothalamus from a brain injury. This is known as secondary narcolepsy.

Secondary narcolepsy is a severe neurological condition that can lead to irregular sleep cycles as well as memory loss and mood disorders.

Total Sleep Deprivation Effects On The Brain

Total sleep deprivation is typically classified as going at least one full night without sleep.6 Your ability to complete tasks with speed and accuracy begins to decrease soon after this. Sleep deprivation can affect your short- and long-term memory.7 Some studies suggest that memory is negatively impacted by impaired synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus.

Insomnia And Mental Health Disorders

Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder frequently give rise to serious sleeping problems. It is estimated that 40% of people with insomnia have a mental health disorder.

These conditions can incite pervasive negative thoughts and mental hyperarousal that disturbs sleep. In addition, studies indicate that insomnia can exacerbate mood and anxiety disorders, making symptoms worse and even increasing the risk of suicide in people with depression.

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Integration And Treatment Implications

Our intent in this article has been to outline the mechanisms by which insomnia develops and is maintained, highlighting findings in the literature at various levels of analysis. summarizes the evidence at each unit of analysis, which indicates that evidence for the pathophysiology has been generated using numerous methodologies based on a range of theoretical scientific perspectives. Integration of the evidence presented here allows us to propose one possible model for the pathophysiology of insomnia. depicts this model, in which insomnia is most likely to develop in those who have increased genetic risk and who experience abnormalities in neurobiological processes. These trait-like vulnerabilities may lead to neurophysiologic hyperarousal and to psychologic and behavioral processes, which, individually or together, increase an individuals risk for developing insomnia and associated downstream health consequences. Precipitating stressors and other person-specific factors moderate these relationships. The extent to which an individual with insomnia shows evidence of abnormalities in each of the processes depicted may vary among different individuals.

Poor Sleep Makes You Moody

Mount Sinai Health System: How does insomnia affect the body?

Think cranky toddler in need of a nap. We all know that sleep affects mood and irritability. But brain-imaging studies have shown that a good nights sleep helps our brain regulate mood and cope with whatever the next day brings. Conversely, insufficient sleep boosts a part of the brain thats known to be affected by depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.

Without sleep, the brain had reverted back to more primitive patterns of activity in that it was unable to put emotional experiences into context and produced controlled, appropriate responses, the studys senior author Matthew Walker, Director of University of California Berkeleys Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, said in a statement in 2007 .

Chronic insomnia has also been linked to increased risk of developing a mood disorder, including anxiety or depression. Another study found that after a week of getting just four-and-a-half hours of sleep per night, individuals reported worse moods .

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Released: April 05 2016

At A Glance

  • Twenty-three insomnia patients and 30 healthy controls were examined with diffusion tensor imaging and given questionnaires to evaluate mental status and sleep patterns.
  • Compared to the healthy controls, insomnia patients had altered white matter tract integrity in brain regions that regulate sleep, consciousness, and alertness.
  • White matter integrity abnormalities in insomnia patients may be caused by loss of myelin.
  • RSNA Media Relations

OAK BROOK, Ill. Using a sophisticated MRI technique, researchers have found abnormalities in the brain’s white matter tracts in patients with insomnia. Results of the study were published online in the journal Radiology.

Primary insomnia, in which individuals have difficulty falling or staying asleep for a month or longer, is associated with daytime fatigue, mood disruption and cognitive impairment. Insomnia can also lead to depression and anxiety disorders.

Shumei Li, M.S.

“Insomnia is a remarkably prevalent disorder,” said researcher Shumei Li, M.S., from the Department of Medical Imaging, Guangdong No. 2 Provincial People’s Hospital, Guangzhou, China. “However, its causes and consequences remain elusive.”

For the study, Li, along with colleagues lead by investigator Guihua Jiang, M.D., set out to analyze the white matter tracts in insomnia patients and the relationship between abnormal white matter integrity and the duration and features of insomnia.

For patient-friendly information on brain MRI, visit

Sleep Rxa Guide To Better Sleep

Physiologically sleep is defined as a state our bodies enter into during which brain wave activity changes and our nervous system is less reactive to external stimuli . But our sleep is not constant throughout the night. We actually cycle through four distinct sleep phases multiple times , Bazil, who is also Director of the Division of Epilespy and Sleep at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, tells NBC News BETTER.

There are two stages of light sleep. The lightest is the stage of sleep youre likely in if you nod off during a lecture when consciousness is decreased, but the brain is still processing some information around you . Intermediate light sleep is slightly deeper, which is harder to awaken from, Bazil explains.

Your brain is actually very active during sleep doing important things its not just resting.

Deep slow-wave sleep is the next stage of sleep. This is the deepest, most restful, and most restorative stage of sleep, when its hardest to awaken. If you do get woken up during this stage of sleep youre likely to feel groggy. And finally, theres REM sleep , which is when we dream. Our bodies tend to spend more time in restful slow wave sleep earlier in the night when our bodies and minds are most tired. Later in the night we tend to spend more time in REM sleep.

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What Your Brain Does While You Sleep

  • Sleep Stage 1: As you enter this first stage of sleep, your brain slowly changes from wakefulness to sleep. If there is a change in your surroundings, you are likely to wake up.
  • Sleep Stage 2: Your heart rate and brain waves slow during stage 2 sleep, preparing your mind and body for restorative deep sleep.
  • Sleep Stage 3: During stage 3 sleep, your brain waves reach their lowest frequency, and it would be hard for anything to disturb your slumber. As a result, stage 3 sleep is also known as slow wave sleep or deep sleep. How much deep sleep you get will dictate how well-rested you feel come morning.
  • REM Sleep: Finally, you reach the final stage of sleep: rapid eye movement sleep . Your brain is the most active that it will be as you sleep. According to the National Institutes of Health, most of your dreams will occur now as your body is temporarily paralyzed. This sleep stage is pivotal for your memory and learning potential.

This cycle will take around 90 minutes. After you complete your first cycle, it will start over again.

Will Improving Sleep Benefit Cognition

Long Term Effects of Insomnia on Health

For people with sleeping problems, improving sleep offers a practical way to enhance their cognitive performance. Getting the recommended amount of uninterrupted sleep can help the brain recuperate and avoid many of the negative consequences of poor sleep on diverse aspects of thinking.

Researchers and public health experts are increasingly viewing good sleep as a potential form of prevention of dementia and Alzheimers disease. Although more studies are needed to conclusively determine sleeps role in preventing cognitive decline, early research hints that taking steps to improve sleep may reduce the longer-term likelihood of developing Alzheimers dementia.

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Sleep Helps The Brain Learn And Stay Flexible

In the first study, the experimenters tampered with the study participants deep, non-REM sleep stage after asking them to learn a new set of movements. The scientists monitored the participants brain activity their motor cortex, specifically throughout the study.

The team led by Switzerland-based scientists found that a restless deep sleep resulted in a visibly reduced learning efficiency. The researchers explained that their results hinged on the brains synapses and their roles in learning.

Synapses are microscopic connections between neurons that, together with brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, facilitate the passing of electrical impulses from one neuron to another. During the day, synapses switch on in response to the stimuli that the brain receives from the environment.

But during sleep, the activity of these synapses goes back to normal. Without this restorative period, they stay excited at their peak activity for too long.

This interferes with the brains neuroplasticity that is, its ability to re-wire itself and create new connections between neurons. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to pick up new skills, change and adapt to its environment stimuli, and ultimately learn new things.

Nicole Wenderoth, a professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at the ETH Zurich, and co-lead author explains what occurred in their new study.

Sleep Apnea Changes How The Brain Works

A February 2016 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research by the UCLA School of Nursing investigated the injury caused to the insular cortex of the brain by sleep apnea. They studied levels of two important brain chemicals, called neurotransmistters: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, known as GABA. Unlike previous studies, we actually found substantial differences in these two chemicals that influence how the brain is working, said Paul Macey, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor at the UCLA School of Nursing.

It is rare to have this size of difference in biological measures, Macey said. We expected an increase in the glutamate, because it is a chemical that causes damage in high doses and we have already seen brain damage from sleep apnea. What we were surprised to see was the drop in GABA. That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.

Macey says the studys results are, in a way, encouraging. In contrast with damage, if something is working differently, we can potentially fix it.

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The Role Of Genes And Neurotransmitters

Chemical signals to sleep

Clusters of sleep-promoting neurons in many parts of the brain become more active as we get ready for bed. Nerve-signaling chemicals called neurotransmitters can switch off or dampen the activity of cells that signal arousal or relaxation. GABA is associated with sleep, muscle relaxation, and sedation. Norepinephrine and orexin keep some parts of the brain active while we are awake. Other neurotransmitters that shape sleep and wakefulness include acetylcholine, histamine, adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin.

Genes and sleep

Sleep studies

Your health care provider may recommend a polysomnogram or other test to diagnose a sleep disorder. A polysomnogram typically involves spending the night at a sleep lab or sleep center. It records your breathing, oxygen levels, eye and limb movements, heart rate, and brain waves throughout the night. Your sleep is also video and audio recorded. The data can help a sleep specialist determine if you are reaching and proceeding properly through the various sleep stages. Results may be used to develop a treatment plan or determine if further tests are needed.

Sleep Deprivation Effects On The Brain

Infographic: What Happens When Your Brain Doesnât Sleep

Sleep deprivation means getting an insufficient amount of sleep. The average adult requires between seven to nine hours per night for optimal functioning.1 Sleep is beneficial to both the functioning of our brains and bodies. Conversely, sleep deprivation or non-restorative sleep can have a myriad of negative effects, particularly on our cognitive functioning. Lack of sleep effects can include memory and judgment impairment, mood swings, and sleep deprivation headaches. Other common signs of sleep deprivation may be clumsiness, and weight gain or weight loss. Chronic partial or total sleep deprivation can seriously impact your physical and mental health.

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Reward Processing In The Sleep

The mesolimbic reward system is a network of interconnected brain regions, including the midbrain ventral tegmental area, striatum and regions of the PFC. The ventral tegmental area provides dopaminergic innervation to the striatum, which is connected to, and regulated by, areas of the PFC, particularly by the medial PFC and inferior orbitofrontal cortex regions, guiding motivated actions and learning. This system has repeatedly been demonstrated to show sensitivity to SD, leading to alterations in motivated behaviours, such as risk taking, sensation seeking and impulsivity .

Sleep loss and incentive processing

In rats, SD disrupts dopaminergic function by modifying dopamine receptor sensitivity and availability in basal ganglia regions,. Humans deprived of sleep for one night show increases in ventral striatum activity in mixed monetary gamble task during the anticipation and receipt of monetary rewards,. Activity in affect-related regions in the frontal cortex that are associated with valuation and viscerosensory functions, including the insula and mPFC, is also substantially increased following SD,.

Volumetric Findings Of Subcortical Structures

Mean volume of the left caudate was significantly smaller in the patient with paradoxical insomnia compared to psychophysiological insomnia, as well as to the control group. In addition, volume of bilateral caudate was different between paradoxical insomnia and psychophysiological insomnia .

Table 2. Volume of subcortical structures . Data are presented as mean ± SD.

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Insomnia In Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is frequently associated with sleep disorders: Insomnia , RLS and sleep related breathing disorder . The causes for insomnia are manifold, and include primary insomnia, pain, nocturia, spasticity and obesity. Some specific MS drug regimens can contribute to insomnia. Insomnia is associated with physical and functional impairment and depression. Depending on criteria and type of assessment 2554% of MS patients suffer from non-restorative sleep .

At MS onset sleep quality in younger adults is mainly normal . The risk to develop insomnia is associated with increased fatigue scores . A prospective multicenter study in Portugal including 206 MS patients, detected chronic insomnia in 22,6%, frequently associated to female sex, anxiety disorder, fatigue and presence of other comorbidities . Others described a prevalence of insomnia varying between 13,2% of MS patients with relapsing and remitting MS and 12,5% with about half of them suffering from RRMS . In 10,000 MS patients and 40,000 matched controls from a database insomnia was identified as a prodromal symptom of MS occurring up to 10years prior to disease onset . MS patients with insomnia showed a higher arousal level than patients with insomnia only or patients with other neurological disorders . A Dutch study showed that in MS patients with sleep disturbances cognitive impairment was pronounced and thalamic functional connectivity was impaired .


Research For Your Health

The Neuroscience of Sleep and its Disorders

NHLBI-funded research found that adults who regularly get 7-8 hours of sleep a night have a lower risk of obesity and high blood pressure. Other NHLBI-funded research found that untreated sleep disorders rase the risk for heart problems and problems during pregnancy, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

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Deep Sleep Relieves Anxiety In Key Brain Region

As to the anxiolytic effects of sleep, functional MRI scans and polysomnograms have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain is key. This region deactivated after a sleepless night in some studies co-led by the same Prof. Walker.

Previous research suggests that the medial prefrontal cortex helps calm anxiety and reduce stress levels. In Prof. Walkers research, other regions associated with processing emotions were hyperactive in sleep-deprived patients.

Without sleep, Prof. Walker explains, its almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake. A sleepless night caused anxiety levels to spike by up to 30% in their study, report the scientists.

Furthermore, the study found that anxiety levels dropped after a full night of sleep and that this decrease was even sharper in participants who spent more time in the deep non-REM stage of sleep.

Deep sleep had restored the brains prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity, and preventing the escalation of anxiety.

Eti Ben Simon, study co-author

Can Insomnia Be Fatal

The research team led by Drummond and co-principal investigator Matthew Walker, PhD, studied 25 people with primary insomnia and 25 good sleepers. Participants had an average age of 32 years. The study subjects underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan while performing a working memory task.

As the task got harder, good sleepers used more resources within the working memory network of the brain, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. People with insomnia were unable to recruit more resources in these brain regions. Furthermore, as the task got harder, participants with insomnia did not dial down the “default mode” regions of the brain that are normally only active when our minds are wandering.

“The data help us understand that people with insomnia not only have trouble sleeping at night, but their brains are not functioning as efficiently during the day,” said Drummond. “Some aspects of insomnia are as much of a daytime problem as a nighttime problem. These daytime problems are associated with organic, measurable abnormalities of brain activity, giving us a biological marker for treatment success.”

According to the authors, the study is the largest to examine cerebral activation with functional MRI during cognitive performance in people with primary insomnia, relative to well-matched good sleepers. It also is the first to characterize functional MRI differences in working memory in people with primary insomnia.

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