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Depression: No Miracle Sleep Cure

Sleep-deprivation therapy has been lauded as a cure for depression, but it rarely does the job.

I read a couple years ago about a special sleep cure for depression. If you do it when it's first starting and do it right away, you might stop it from becoming a full-blown depression. It had to do with sleeping four hours one night at a specific time (I believe it was from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m.), and then getting up and staying up until the next night. Could you please tell me more about this, and the correct way to do it? Does it really work?

If there were a true "cure" for depression, you can best believe you would have heard about it as a major, major event in human history. Unfortunately, there is no cure nor will there likely ever be one.

Depression is about much more than symptoms, and it's about much more than just our physiology. Psychological and social factors are also powerful elements that contribute to a person's vulnerability to depression—and there's no drug or procedure for these. As I have often said in this column, no amount of medication is going to change someone's history, make them better problem-solvers or build them a strong social support network.

Having said that, what you ask about is known as sleep-deprivation therapy. It is based on studies showing that depressed individuals experience anomalies in dream sleep, also called REM sleep because it is characterized by rapid eye movements.

Normally, people cycle through several distinct periods of REM sleep each night. But among the depressed, REM sleep typically occurs too early, lasts too long, and is marked by excess activity. Interestingly, the sleep disturbance correlates with prognosis for both recovery and relapse.

Correlation, however, doesn't mean causation. It is difficult to know whether the sleep disturbance leads to depression, depression leads to the sleep disturbance, or whether some other factor(s) leads to both.

Sleep-deprivation therapy manipulates the sleep-wake cycle by keeping the patient up all night. Fifty percent of individuals report an elevation of mood almost immediately. Unfortunately, 90 percent also experience a return to depressed mood after their next period of sleep. Any procedure with a relapse rate that high is considered a long shot, at best for any individual. The results are too temporary to be considered useful.