According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, around 10 to 15 percent of adults in the United States have an insomnia disorder that causes distress or other daytime impairments. Additionally, nearly seven percent of adults experience depression, per the National Institute of Mental Health. Recent findings suggest that insomnia is a possible risk factor for depression because it impairs the brain’s ability to regulate emotions.

A new study offers some neurobiological evidence for dysfunction in emotional regulation in people with insomnia, which can be a risk factor for depression. Changes in the brains neural circuitry in regards to emotional regulation can create pathways for depression because insomnia disrupts the normal functioning of emotions in the brain.

The study followed 14 people with chronic primary insomnia who lacked other psychiatric disorders as well as 30 normal sleepers. Researchers conducted fMRI scans while the participants were engaged in an emotional task that involved exposure to images. Participants were shown sets of negative and neutral images. While viewing the negative images, participants were asked to diminish their emotional response as much as possible using cognitive reappraisal.

In the primary insomnia group, amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates emotional responses) activity was higher during the reappraisal period then during the passive viewing. The participants in the primary insomnia group also had much higher amygdala activity during reappraisal than the group of normal sleepers. However there was no significant difference between the groups’ amygdala activity during the passive viewing of negative images.

“Previous studies have demonstrated that successful emotional regulation suing reappraisal decreases amygdala response in healthy individuals, yet we were surprised that activity was even higher during reappraisal of, versus passive viewing of, pictures with negative emotional content in this sample of individuals with primary insomnia,” commented the study’s lead author, Peter Franzen, PhD and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine.

The full study is to be presented next week at SLEEP 2013, the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC. An abstract of the research was published in an online supplement to the journal SLEEP.

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