A recent study, however, has managed to throw some fascinating light on the relations between acute sleep deprivation and alleviation of depression.
Gujar N, Yoo SS, Hu P, and Walker MP. of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, Department of Psychology and Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California have recently reported (Gujar et al., Sleep deprivation amplifies reactivity of brain reward networks, biasing the appraisal of positive emotional experiences. J Neurosci. 2011 Mar 23;31(12):4466-74) that sleep deprivation amplifies reactivity throughout human mesolimbic reward brain networks in response to pleasure-evoking stimuli. In addition, this amplified reactivity was associated with a biased increase in the number of emotional stimuli judged as pleasant in the sleep-deprived group. Interestingly the degree of bias toward labeling incoming stimuli ‘positive' when in the sleep deprived state was correlated with activity in mesolimbic regions. In short, it appears that acute sleep deprivation increases reactivity in reward networks of the brain. The older neurobiological literature on REM deprivation in animals suggested that motivational and drive related states were heightened during after REM deprivation as animals seemed much more attuned to reinforcing and pleasureable stimuli. These facts led the older researchers to suggest that the normal function of REM was to dampen down pleasureable or motivational states or that REM functioned to re-tune catecholaminergic synapses throughout the brain. In any case both the older literature and the newer data suggest that REM specializes in handling negative motivational and appetitive states and thus it should not be surprising that REM deprivation has a potent if temporary anti-depressant effect. Nor should it be surprizing that REM indices are virtually always elevated in major depression. It seems that major depression is fueled at least in part by a kind of dis-inhibition of REM physiology.
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