You’ll feel better in the morning: Sleep deprivation disconnects the emotional brain January 27, 2008Posted by Johan in Emotion, Neuroscience, Sleep.
Disturbed sleep patterns feature in a range of psychiatric disorders, many of which fall under the DSM’s mood disorder category. A recent paper by Yoo et al (2007) suggests that sleep deprivation itself can produce abnormal affective processing. In other words, sleep disturbances may be a cause as well as a symptom in conditions such as depression.
Yoo et al (2007) approached this issue with fMRI. Brain scans were taken of one participant group who had been sleep deprived for 35 hours, and one group who had slept normally. The participants viewed emotional pictures from a standardised set (the international affective picture system), which varied gradually in valence from neutral to aversive.
Yoo et al approached the imaging analysis with a few theoretical notions, which formed the basis of the brain areas that they investigated more closely. First, the amygdala is believed to mediate the emotional response to the aversive pictures, and secondly, it is argued that responding in the amygdala is mediated by an inhibitory projection from medial prefrontal cortex (a frequently invoked projection – see this related post).
To address the first issue, Yoo et al compared the amygdala response to the aversive pictures in the two groups. The amygdala was more activated bilaterally in the sleep-deprived group, and furthermore, a larger volume of amygdala was activated in this group as the figure at the top of this post shows. Note that the neutral pictures elicited no greater amygdala responses in the sleep-deprived group, so this is a case of greater amygdala re-activity, rather than an increase in baseline responding.
The role of medial prefrontal cortex in mediating the amygdala reactivity was investigated by measuring the regions that showed functional connectivity with the amygdala during the task. The method isn’t straightforward, but essentially it’s based on taking the activity in the amygdala voxels, and assessing which other brain regions show responses that covary. The results are given as a contrast between the two groups.
As the yellow bits in the figure show, the sleep control group displayed stronger amygdala-prefrontal connectivity than the sleep-deprived group. Conversely, the amygdala had stronger connectivity with various regions of the brainstem in the sleep deprived group compared to the sleep control group.
So to re-cap: sleep-deprived participants showed larger amygdala responses, and their amygdalas showed weaker functional connectivity with medial prefrontal cortex. This finding does not prove that the greater amygdala response in the sleep-deprived group was caused by the weakened connectivity with medial prefrontal cortex, but it is certainly consistent with that notion. Yoo et al suggest that sleep acts as a kind of reset of brain reactivity, to ensure that emotional challenges can be met appropriately. But why is such a reset necessary in the first place? Why is the regulatory influence of medial prefrontal cortex weakened by sleep deprivation? The role of sleep in affect is only beginning to be understood.
Yoo, S-S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F.A., & Walker, M.P. (2007). The human emotional brain without sleep – a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology, 17, 877-878.