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Warwick researchers find neural link between depression and sleep

For the first time, researchers at the University of Warwick’s Department of Computer Science, including Professor Jianfeng Feng and Professor Edmund Rolls, and Dr Wei Cheng from Fudan University in China have found functional connectivity between regions of the brain that link depression to sleeping problems. A strong neural connection between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with short-term memory), the precuneus (associated with the self) and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (associated with negative emotion) has been identified. Analysis has shown that it is the links between these regions of the brain that lead to the relationship between depression and poor sleep.

For over a century, a link between depression and sleep has been observed with over 75% of depression patients reporting significant levels of sleep disturbance with difficulty falling asleep and short duration of sleep (insomnia). Researchers have now established a neural link between the two. Affecting 3% of the world population, the World Health Organisation has ranked major depressive disorder as a leading cause of the years-of-life lived with disability. In addition, poor sleep and sleep deprivation have become common problems affecting more than a third of the world’s population. Whilst this study does not state whether deprivation or poor sleep causes depression or vice versa, there is now robust scientific evidence to back up the observations made in the past.

A link between depression and sleep has been observed with over 75 per cent of depression patients reporting significant levels of sleep disturbance with difficulty falling asleep and short duration of sleep

Students are, of course, not immune to the damages of mental health problems. To make matters worse, we have a reputation of being bad at managing our sleep cycles. Some may feel as though the number of all-nighters they manage to pull defines their level of dedication but Professor Feng explains that people with insomnia also have a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. Undoubtedly, this research will now prompt many to reflect upon their mental health as well their physical lifestyle and whether fuelling ourselves up with coffee is an efficient method for managing workload and meeting deadlines in the long run.

Professor Jianfeng Feng has also commented that factors such as longer working hours and commuting times, late night activity, and increased dependency on electronics has meant that poor sleep or deprivation affects over a third of the world’s population. In this way, he suggests that these findings could have important public health implications. This point is further consolidated by the understanding that depression is a major personal burden to those affected and their loved ones. In addition to being a social burden, depression, and other mental health problems are an economic burden as well keeping people off work and lowering the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This research will now prompt many to reflect upon their mental health as well their physical lifestyle and whether fuelling ourselves up with coffee is an efficient method for managing workload

Professor Edmund Rolls mentioned that the lateral orbitofrontal cortex is a key brain area that might be targeted in the search for treatments for depression. In this way, this research also opens doors for discovering new targeted treatments as well as a better quality of sleep now that we have new light shed on the underlying mechanisms that link depression to sleep patterns. After all, progress in our understanding of the fundamental causes of depression rather than developments in existing treatments and therapies only would potentially serve to be a more effective method of tackling the problem going forward and eliminating its root cause.

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