In a breakthrough study conducted by Northwestern University, neurobiologists have discovered that a single night of acute sleep loss can rapidly reverse depression for several days. The research, published online on November 2, 2023, in the journal Neuron, suggests that acute sleep deprivation increases dopamine release and enhances synaptic plasticity, essentially rewiring the brain.
"The researchers found that one all-nighter roughly had the same effects on the brain as taking the anesthetic ketamine," reports Inverse.
While chronic sleep loss is well-known for its detrimental effects, the positive effects of brief sleep loss are less understood. "We found that sleep loss induces a potent antidepressant effect and rewires the brain. 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," said Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy, an associate professor of neurobiology and corresponding author of the study.
To investigate the effects of an all-nighter, the researchers induced mild sleep deprivation in mice and observed their behaviors and brain activity. The results indicated that not only did the release of dopamine — a neurotransmitter associated with the brain's reward system — increase during the sleep loss period, but synaptic plasticity was also enhanced, maintaining an elevated mood for the next few days. "The investigators found that after a sleepless night, the animals' behavior shifted to becoming more aggressive, hyperactive, and hypersexual, compared with control animals that experienced a typical night's sleep," reports Gen Edge.
"The thing that surprised me the most is how potent the antidepressant effect was," Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy, the study's senior author and neurobiology professor at Northwestern University, tells Inverse. It's so potent that it resembled her lab's prior data on ketamine's antidepressant effects. "It basically looks as good as a drug that is now very hyped about. We saw essentially the same effect magnitude."
Kozorovitskiy suggests that this effect could be an evolutionary adaptation, aiding in situations where intense alertness is required over a short period, such as facing a predator. However, she cautions against using sleep deprivation as an antidepressant strategy due to its transient nature and the overall importance of good sleep for health.