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  • New research in mice suggests how short-term sleep deprivation can affect dopamine, which regulates sleep and mood.
  • Experts in the field say that while the research is good, more work needs to be done in order to be able to identify its relevance to humans

New research published this month in Neuron has found that brief sleep deprivation in mice could hold further insights into how a key chemical in the brain — dopamine — affects sleep and mood in those with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar.

The study involved interrupting the sleep cycles of mice and observing both their behavior and their neurological responses.

Jamie Zeitzer (PhD), professor and co-director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University and Science Adviser at Rise Science, says that this research is valuable because it brings dopamine back into the conversations surrounding sleep and mood that have more recently prioritized looking at the use of medications like benzodiazepines.

“Dopamine is thought to be elevated during wakefulness and then reduced during sleep. And exactly how it’s involved, there’s lots of theories and lots of interesting ideas, but we’re not exactly sure, we just know that it’s involved somehow.”

However, Zeitzer says that it’s important to keep in mind that a rodent’s reaction to sleep deprivation is inherently different from that of humans. While some human participants in sleep studies can stay up for multiple days with minimal stress, such a reaction is impossible in rodents.

To conduct the study, some of the mice were placed in a cylinder with a platform and a separate moving beam used to stimulate movement. They found that the mice who were sleep deprived went into states of aggression, hyperactivity, and increased sexual activity during those periods. More positive reactions, measured by metrics such as a reduction in escape attempts were also observed in the overtired mice.

From a biological perspective, the researchers found, using technology called dopamine sensor photometry and chemogenetics, that they could identify how dopamine was impacting different parts of the mice’s brains. The team from Northwestern likens the findings to the “tired and wired” effect staying up all night seems to have in humans.

Shelby Harris (PsyD), director of sleep health at Sleepopolis and a clinical associate professor at Albert Einstein College, says that this research has the potential to give further backing to a practice that is used infrequently in her field.

“We kind of know in the psychiatry field that one more unusual treatment for depression can be a night of no sleep… So it was nice to see this kind of highlighted in an animal study,” Harris said.

She says that this temporary lack of sleep, when prescribed, is used as a kind of reset tool but is not recommended for long term use due to the negative mental health impacts of sleep deprivation. Long periods of sleep deprivation can trigger severe symptoms for those with conditions such as bipolar disorder and can also increase anxiety while decreasing cardiovascular function.

According to experts, should this research further develop, one possible pathway could be to look deeper at how medication that affects dopamine could be used to treat depression and its connection to sleep. Zeitzer says that there is a key reason why practitioners have been hesitant to go down this route over the half a century that dopamine has been connected to sleeping and waking.

“As soon as dopamine becomes a mechanism, people get very nervous because of addiction issues. And so because of that, we know much less about dopamine and its involvement in sleep… and so it’s always good getting more information like this [study].”

For their part, the team behind the study are, at this stage, suggesting that further research be done to better understand the mechanisms at play when it comes to dopamine, depression, and sleep, in order to create more effective mood stabilizers and antidepressants.

Harris says that while the findings of the research could lead to better medications for the regulation of mood disorders she doesn’t currently see a future where it’s a common treatment.

“It’s not going to, off the bat, be the first line thing,” Harris said. “It might be [used] when you’re not responding to the more traditional treatments [and] then we might want to try this.”

Zeitzer believes that any further development in this area of research has to continue being focused on the core connection between dopamine, depression, and sleep.

“If you look at studies in humans where you sleep deprived someone, during the sleep deprivation, it’s a great antidepressant. You know, many people are completely relieved of their depression during sleep deprivation, they go to sleep, and wake up, and they’re back to being depressed.”

The idea, he says, is to take what we already know and identify whether sleep deprivation can change our biochemistry and, if so, how.

“And if that were the case, and we could figure out what that [mechanism]was, then we would have a potential way to kind of directly intervene and cause people not to actually be depressed. And that would be amazing.”

New research looks at sleep deprivation finds how it can impact a key chemical in the brain, dopamine. This chemical affects sleep and mood in those with mood disorders such as depression and bipolar.