The Social Brain Blog sat down recently with Dr. Veasey at the Third Annual Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Neurological Institute and The Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance.
Social Brain Blog (SBB): What is the current understanding of the relationship between sleep and mental health?
Sigrid Veasey: There are many different components. Alertness, attention, motivation, perception, compassion and rational behavior, are all factors influenced in various mental health conditions, and all can be affected by sleep. I think what we’re realizing now is that sleep loss early in life can have lasting changes on your neural connectivity. This may ultimately be an important factor in Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disease or develop general anxiety disorders in addition to genetics and other environmental factors. It’s possible that it could be because of one of these early-life sleep changes. It’s something we’ve never really thought about before.
What we’re starting to realize is that the brain responds to things really slowly and from an insult at an early age, you can lose connectivity gradually. From our work with sleep deprivation, we know that the amygdala is one of those areas that gets injured by sleep loss. The amygdala is intimately involved in anxiety responses, mood and memory, and how you act upon something—it has a big role in memory and mood.
SBB: Can someone function on three-and-a-half hours of sleep a night? Are there people who are more resistant to the effects of sleep deprivation, or does the connection between sleep and brain health apply to everyone?
SV: There are beautiful data that come from the psychologist David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania who looks at neurobehavioral impairments in response to chronic sleep deprivation. His work shows that on the first night of sleep deprivation subjects will say: “Oh, I feel awful. This is terrible.” The second night of sleep deprivation, they’ll say: “I’m a teenie bit worse, but maybe not by much.” The third night, they’ll say: “I’m not sure I notice any difference, or feel any different than yesterday.” If you look at how they’re deteriorating in performance each day, in parallel with the length of prolonged wakefulness.
In other words, you become a really bad judge of your own state. I can remember back in my medical training when we would work in the intensive care unit, people would say: “Don’t worry, your first few nights when you’re on call will be terrible but you’ll get used to it. But there’s zero evidence that you get used to it. You feel subjectively that you have gotten used to it but there is absolutely no evidence that you actually do get used to it and a lot of evidence for the contrary.
What I would say to a three-and-a-half hour-a-night sleeper is this. You might be one of those genetically lucky people who only needs that much sleep. That is remotely possible. But it’s far more likely that this has become your new norm. There are chronic diabetics who are walking around with a glucose of 600. I would be comatose with a glucose of 600. But these patients have just slowly gotten there over a long time and so they don’t really notice the difference. They feel OK. Same thing with asthmatics. Asthmatics can have barely any movement of airflow and think it is normal. Sleep is the same way. Deprivation becomes your chronic new norm. If you are sleeping in on weekends, you are not getting enough sleep during the week.