forced sleep deprivation and depression

dag.stenberg at dag.stenberg at
Wed Mar 28 03:23:23 EST 2001

In bionet.neuroscience Nathan_miami <asdf at> wrote:
> Is there any medical research linking forced sleep deprivation and
> depression?  While I am fine when getting 7.5+ hours of sleep per night, I
> become severely depressed and have suicidal ideations when I am forced to
> get by on less than six (6) hours of sleep.   My line of work (management
> consulting) often requires me to work long hours and put in 80+ hours per
> week. I would like to make the switch to Investment Banking where the hours
> are even more grueling. However, I don't think I can handle the lack of
> sleep.

Yes, there is abundant medical research linking forced sleep deprivation
and depression. The literature can be found easily through Medline (e.g. ), and is partly referred to in most
recent books on sleep medicine.
  Very briefly as a general summary:
- sleep loss induces a "sleep debt" in brain performance which affects 
especially prefrontal cortical functions, like working memory, the 
ability to concentrate, motivation, problem-solving.
- in healthy humans, sleep loss very often induces depressive symptoms,
even suicidal thoughts
- BUT: in patients with major depression, restriction of sleep
alleviates the depression on the day after sleep loss, but depression
returns after a night with normal sleep. There are theories why
depressive patients react differently from healthy people, but I'll skip
that for now.
- the individual need for sleep varies: 5 hours a night is as normal as
10 hours a night. Unfortunately, a long sleeper cannot train to become a
short sleeper, because the biological difference is somewhere in the
genes (and where, we do not yet know).

It is important to make the general public understand that a person who
has a sleep debt does not perform normally, and may constitute a risk 
in traffic, industry or other work situations. Sleep debt may follow
from one or two nights of total sleep loss, or from chronic partial
sleep loss, like sleeping only 4 (or even 6) hours a night for a week.
At present, the psychophysiological impairments resulting from sleep loss
are well known, and documented in numerous studies on humans, but the 
cellular and molecular mechanisms (which have to be studied in cats, rats
and mice) less so. Until further notice, the only way to alleviate 
sleep loss is to sleep.

Dag Stenberg
M.D., Ph.D., basic sleep researcher

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