Without the benefits of sound sleep, distressing events of decades ago continue to activate the emotional circuits of the brain as if they are happening right now. (Photo: Representational/Pexels)
Washington: Cringe-worthy mistakes and embarrassing blunders made today won't seem so bad tomorrow, that is, if you're not an insomniac. As part of a recent study, scientists asked participants to relive their most shameful experiences of decades ago while making MRI scans of their brain activity.
This breakthrough finding suggests that insomnia could primarily be caused by a failing neutralisation of emotional distress, which makes it understandable that insomnia is the primary risk factor for the development of disorders of mood, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.
Findings of the study were published in the Journal Brain. It is a well-known fact that sleep helps us remember important experiences. But sleep is also essential for getting rid of the emotional distress that may have occurred during those experiences.
Both these overnight processes involve changes in the connections between brain cells: some become stronger and consolidate memories, whereas others are weakened and get rid of unwanted associations.
"Sayings like 'sleeping on it' to 'get things off your mind' reflect our nocturnal digestion of daytime experiences. Brain research now shows that only good sleepers profit from sleep when it comes to shedding emotional tension. The process does not work well in people with insomnia. In fact, their restless nights can even make them feel worse" said first author Rick Wassing.
The new brain imaging findings explain a recent finding that the same research group has just published in the scientific journal Sleep. In this study, they asked participants to sing along karaoke-style.
Headphones prevented them from hearing their own voice and finding the correct pitch. Their singing was recorded and played back later. Participants felt intense shame when listening to their own out-of-tune solo singing. But if they listened once more after a good night's sleep, they didn't feel that distressed about it. On the other hand, after a restless night, people with insomnia were even more upset about it.
Scientists have been searching for causes of insomnia in brain areas that regulate sleep. The new findings show that causes of insomnia are probably rather found in brain circuits that regulate emotions.
These circuits contain risk genes for insomnia and may not activate properly, as they normally do, during rapid eye movement sleep. Without the benefits of sound sleep, distressing events of decades ago continue to activate the emotional circuits of the brain as if they are happening right now.