Tel Aviv University study pinpoints neural mechanism responsible for impaired neutrality due to sleep loss.
Cranky or grumpy after a long night? Your brain’s ability to regulate emotions is probably compromised by fatigue. This is bad news for 30 percent of American adults who get less than six hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A new Tel Aviv University study has identified the neurological mechanism responsible for disturbed emotion regulation and increased anxiety due to only one night’s lack of sleep. The research reveals the changes sleep deprivation can impose on our ability to regulate emotions and allocate brain resources for cognitive processing.
The research was led by Prof. Talma Hendler of TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and School of Psychological Sciences, and conducted by TAU graduate student Eti Ben-Simon at the Center for Brain Functions at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. It was published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Nothing is neutral any more?
“Prior to our study, it was not clear what was responsible for the emotional impairments triggered by sleep loss,” said Prof. Hendler. “We assumed that sleep loss would intensify the processing of emotional images and thus impede brain capacity for executive functions. We were actually surprised to find that it significantly impacts the processing of both neutral and emotionally-charged images.
“It turns out we lose our neutrality. The ability of the brain to tell what’s important is compromised. It’s as if suddenly everything is important,” she said.
For the purpose of the study, Ben-Simon kept 18 adults awake all night to take two rounds of tests while undergoing brain mapping (fMRI and/or EEG), first following a good night’s sleep and the second following a night of lack of sleep in the lab. One of the tests required participants to describe in which direction small yellow dots moved over distracting images. These images were “positively emotional” (a cat), “negatively emotional” (a mutilated body), or “neutral” (a spoon).
When participants had a good night’s rest, they identified the direction of the dots hovering over the neutral images faster and more accurately, and their EEG pointed to differing neurological responses to neutral and emotional distractors. When sleep-deprived, however, participants performed badly in the cases of both the neutral and the emotional images, and their electrical brain responses, as measured by EEG, did not reflect a highly different response to the emotional images. This pointed to decreased regulatory processing.
“It could be that sleep deprivation universally impairs judgment, but it is more likely that a lack of sleep causes neutral images to provoke an emotional response,” said Ben-Simon.
Losing a sense of proportion
The researchers conducted a second experiment testing concentration levels. Participants were shown neutral and emotional images while performing a task demanding their attention while ignoring distracting background pictures with emotional or neutral content — the depression of a key or button at certain moments — while inside an fMRI scanner. This time researchers measured activity levels in different parts of the brain as they completed the cognitive task.
The team found that participants after only one night of lack of sleep were distracted by every single image (neutral and emotional), while well-rested participants were only distracted by emotional images. The effect was indicated by activity change in the amygdala, a major limbic node responsible for emotional processing in the brain.
“We revealed a change in the emotional specificity of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with detection and valuation of salient cues in our environment, in the course of a cognitive task.” said Prof. Hendler.
“These results reveal that, without sleep, the mere recognition of what is an emotional and what is a neutral event is disrupted. We may experience similar emotional provocations from all incoming events, even neutral ones, and lose our ability to sort out more or less important information. This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgment as well as anxiety,” said Prof. Hendler.
The new findings emphasize the vital role sleep plays in maintaining good emotional balance in our life for promoting mental health. The researchers are currently examining how novel methods for sleep intervention (mostly focusing on REM sleep) may help reduce the emotional dysregulation seen in anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress disorders.
About this sleep and psychology research
Source: George Hunka – AFTAU Image Source: The image is in the public domain Original Research:Abstract for “Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep” by Eti Ben Simon, Noga Oren, Haggai Sharon, Adi Kirschner, Noam Goldway, Hadas Okon-Singer, Rivi Tauman, Menton M. Deweese, Andreas Keil, and Talma Hendler in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online September 23 2015 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1314-15.2015
Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep
Sleep deprivation has been shown recently to alter emotional processing possibly associated with reduced frontal regulation. Such impairments can ultimately fail adaptive attempts to regulate emotional processing (also known as cognitive control of emotion), although this hypothesis has not been examined directly. Therefore, we explored the influence of sleep deprivation on the human brain using two different cognitive–emotional tasks, recorded using fMRI and EEG. Both tasks involved irrelevant emotional and neutral distractors presented during a competing cognitive challenge, thus creating a continuous demand for regulating emotional processing. Results reveal that, although participants showed enhanced limbic and electrophysiological reactions to emotional distractors regardless of their sleep state, they were specifically unable to ignore neutral distracting information after sleep deprivation. As a consequence, sleep deprivation resulted in similar processing of neutral and negative distractors, thus disabling accurate emotional discrimination. As expected, these findings were further associated with a decrease in prefrontal connectivity patterns in both EEG and fMRI signals, reflecting a profound decline in cognitive control of emotion. Notably, such a decline was associated with lower REM sleep amounts, supporting a role for REM sleep in overnight emotional processing. Altogether, our findings suggest that losing sleep alters emotional reactivity by lowering the threshold for emotional activation, leading to a maladaptive loss of emotional neutrality.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Sleep loss is known as a robust modulator of emotional reactivity, leading to increased anxiety and stress elicited by seemingly minor triggers. In this work, we aimed to portray the neural basis of these emotional impairments and their possible association with frontal regulation of emotional processing, also known as cognitive control of emotion. Using specifically suited EEG and fMRI tasks, we were able to show that sleep deprivation alters emotional reactivity by triggering enhanced processing of stimuli regarded previously as neutral. These changes were further accompanied by diminished frontal connectivity, reduced REM sleep, and poorer performance. Therefore, we suggest that sleep loss alters emotional reactivity by lowering the threshold for emotional activation, leading to a maladaptive loss of emotional neutrality.
“Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep” by Eti Ben Simon, Noga Oren, Haggai Sharon, Adi Kirschner, Noam Goldway, Hadas Okon-Singer, Rivi Tauman, Menton M. Deweese, Andreas Keil, and Talma Hendler in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online September 23 2015 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1314-15.2015