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You might not think that sleep deprivation is conducive to emotional wellness, but many of those whose wellbeing is affected by depression often experience temporary relief after forgoing a good night’s sleep. Yes, sleep deprivation is an impractical long term treatment, and the mood boost typically only lasts until you fall asleep again, but wellness experts are still interested in the mechanism behind this phenomenon, and a new study, published in Translational Psychiatry, has found a key culprit in sleep deprivation and depression relief.
Until now, it was thought that astrocytes — a star-shaped type of glial cell — regulate the brain chemicals involved in sleepiness. These cells continuously release the neurotransmitter adenosine when you’re awake, which then builds up in your brain. This causes the feeling of sleepiness and its related memory and attention deficits, known as “sleep pressure”, which adenosine creates by binding to receptors on the outside of your neurons.
For the new study, the research team at Tufts University investigated this process in an attempt to determine whether it is responsible for your antidepressant feelings during sleep deprivation. The researchers gave mice with depressive-like symptoms three doses of a compound that triggers adenosine receptors, and this mimicked sleep deprivation. The mice continued to sleep normally, but after 12 hours they showed significant mood and behaviour improvements, which lasted for 48 hours.
The results of the study validate the theory that an adenosine build-up is the reason why a lack of sleep leads to antidepressant feelings. This is an important verification, as the results present a new, promising target for drug development. If scientists can chemically mimic sleep deprivation, you can experience the antidepressant benefits without the unwanted side effects of actually losing sleep. This could give you immediate relief from your depression, which is big news considering that traditional antidepressants often take six to eight weeks to work.
Dustin Hines, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at Tufts, commented, ‘For many years neuroscientists focused almost exclusively on neurons, whereas the role of glia was neglected. We now know that glia play an important role in the control of brain function and have the potential to aid in the development of new treatments for many illnesses, including depression and sleep disorders.’