Sleep deprivation could relieve depression but only temporarily, says study, as doctors share warnings

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Pulling an all-nighter might leave you exhausted — but it could also be a temporary mood-booster.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois studied the effects of sleep deprivation in mice and published their findings in the journal Neuron earlier this month. They found that an "acute sleep loss period" raised levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that boosts feelings of pleasure in the brain.

It also rewired the brain to elevate mood for several days after the period of sleep deprivation.

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The findings could help researchers better understand how antidepressants elevate mood and identify targets for new medications, according to a press release from Northwestern University.

During the study, researchers implemented "gentle" techniques to keep the mice from falling asleep.

Woman up all night

Researchers found that an "acute sleep loss period" raised levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that boosts feelings of pleasure, in the brain. (iStock)

After staying up all night, the animals demonstrated more "aggressive, hyperactive and hypersexual" behavior compared to those that slept.

The researchers also measured the animals’ dopamine activity in four regions of the brain, finding that it was higher in the sleep-deprived mice.

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Most of the behavioral changes were gone a few hours later — yet the antidepressant effect continued for a few days after the sleep deprivation.

Although there have been many studies done on the effects of chronic sleep loss, the impact of short-term sleep loss is less understood, according to study co-author Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy, an associate professor of neurobiology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Woman all-nighter

Sleep deprivation was also shown to rewire the brain to elevate mood for several days. (iStock)

"We found that sleep loss induces a potent antidepressant effect and rewires the brain," said Kozorovitskiy in the release. 

"This is an important reminder of how our casual activities, such as a sleepless night, can fundamentally alter the brain in as little as a few hours."

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Dr. Shelby Harris, a New York-based clinical psychologist and director of sleep health at Sleepopolis, was not involved in the study but shared her reactions to the outcome.

"The idea that staying up all night can temporarily alleviate depression is intriguing," she told Fox News Digital. 

"There have been previous studies that have shown similar results, and there are some known mechanisms by which sleep deprivation could lead to improvements in mood."

exercising

The study researcher recommended "hitting the gym or going for a nice walk" to alleviate depression rather than pulling an all-nighter. (iStock)

Dr. Mirela Loftus, medical director for Newport Healthcare in New Jersey, was also not involved in the study but said it brings an "enormous contribution" to the ability to link high-level functions, such as mood and depression, to cellular mechanisms and dopamine network pathways. 

"At least in this scenario, sleep deprivation did cause dopamine changes — specifically in the medial prefrontal cortex, which correlated with a reversal in the depressive-like behaviors in mice," she told Fox News Digital. 

The sleep experts cautioned against staying up all night as a means of curbing depression.

Beyond increasing the release of dopamine, Harris said that sleep deprivation potentially could reset the brain's circadian rhythm, which could lead to improvements in mood and sleep quality.

The study did have limitations, according to Harris.

"Those include its use of mice, focus on acute effects, lack of long-term follow-up, absence of confounding variable controls, small sample size and non-standardized affective state measure," she said.

‘Don’t try this at home’

The sleep experts cautioned against staying up all night as a means of curbing depression.

"This study was done in mice and we have to wait for human-related studies," Loftus told Fox News Digital.

Man working at night

A sleep expert warned that sleep deprivation is a "temporary solution that can have negative consequences for both physical and mental health." (iStock)

In patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the lack of sleep could trigger a manic episode, the doctor warned.

"In other words, don’t try this at home."

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to problems with concentration, memory and learning, as well as accidents, injuries and chronic health conditions.

The true value of the study, according to Loftus, is that it can aid in the development of new treatments for depression targeting the neurotransmitter dopamine and the medial prefrontal cortex.

While there could be a biological benefit to being "intensely alert" after a period of no sleep, Kozorovitskiy pointed out that the antidepressant effect is only "transient."

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"I would say you are better off hitting the gym or going for a nice walk," she said in the release. "This new knowledge is more important when it comes to matching a person with the right antidepressant."

Harris echoed that guidance, noting that sleep deprivation is a "temporary solution that can have negative consequences for both physical and mental health."

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"Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to problems with concentration, memory and learning," she told Fox News Digital. "It can also increase the risk of accidents, injuries and chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes."

Fox News Digital reached out to the study researchers for comment.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health

Melissa Rudy is health editor and a member of the lifestyle team at Fox News Digital. 

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