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Israeli researchers have discovered a brain mechanism that is responsible for anxiety and hypersensitivity in people who do not sleep enough

This is according to a study published by researchers at the Center for Brain Functions, the Wahl Institute for Advanced Imaging, the Sourasky Medical Center Tel Aviv and risks that lack of sleep leads to impaired emotional regulation

Insomnia. Photo: shutterstock
Insomnia. Photo: shutterstock

We all know that lack of sleep greatly disrupts our ability to deal with the world. Without sleep, even the most trivial tasks sometimes feel unbearably difficult, and it seems that we are left without emotional balance. A new Israeli study, published a few months ago in the Journal of Neuroscience, explains why this happens.
Until this study, it was known that lack of sleep causes overactivation of emotional centers in the brain, but it was not clear whether the ability to regulate emotions is still preserved when we are required to face an emotional challenge. To examine this, the research leaders Prof. Thelma Handler and doctoral candidate Etti Ben Simon from Tel Aviv University and from the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, used functional MRI and EEG to record the brain activity of 18 volunteers before and after 24 hours of sleep deprivation.
The subjects were asked to remember a series of numbers or to identify a fast movement pattern when neutral (for example a group of people in an office) or emotional (for example a crying baby) pictures were shown in the background. The subjects were asked to ignore the pictures in order to succeed in performing a task and thus had to constantly process their emotional response. The researchers focused on the activity of the amygdala, a central area of ​​emotional processing in the brain, and the activity of frontal areas responsible for regulating the emotional response.
As expected, amygdala activity was stronger for the emotional pictures when the subjects were awake (after a 7-9 hour night's sleep). But after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, the researchers were surprised to find that in addition to emotional pictures, the amygdala activity was now the same in intensity for the neutral pictures as well, a fact that suggests an undiagnosed emotional response. In addition to this, the activity in frontal areas that regulate emotional activity, decreased significantly.
An examination of the sleep patterns of the subjects showed that such an emotional overreaction was found to be associated with a low amount of REM sleep (also known as dream sleep), a finding that supports the vitality of the dream sleep stage for emotional processing.
This study demonstrates that sleepless nights lead to a decrease in the brain's emotional activation threshold to the point of an excessive emotional response even to neutral stimuli. The study shows how the emotional regulation of the brain is damaged due to lack of sleep and as a result any stimulus, no matter how neutral, becomes emotional and receives a much greater weight than it should receive in a state of normal sleep. This brain mechanism also manages to explain the connection between sleep deprivation and anxiety. Studies show that loss of emotional neutrality is one of the hallmarks of anxiety disorders. In this way, these findings explain a well-known phenomenon in sleep studies that demonstrates how subjects become more and more anxious without sleep.
The research raises important questions, for example, how does this excessive sensitivity affect our daily lives and our decision-making? We live in a world where sleep is not valued and does not get its rightful place. Most of us live in constant sleep deprivation, what does this deprivation do to our brains? These findings are particularly worrying when you take into account the ongoing decrease in sleep hours in the Western world and the emotional price we pay for it.
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