Can REM Sleep Halt the Negative Effects of Trauma?

Did you know that there is new evidence that suggests the existence of a time-sensitive window when—if you intervene to improve sleep—you could potentially stave off the negative effects of trauma? According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, increasing the amount of time spent asleep immediately after a traumatic experience, may ease any negative consequences.

Published in Scientific Reports, the study helps build a case for the use of sleep therapeutics following trauma exposure. It was found that if you can increase sleep, you can improve function.

close up photography of woman sleeping

The findings hold particular promise for populations that are routinely exposed to trauma, such as military personnel and first responders, and may also benefit victims of accidents, natural disaster, violence, and abuse.

In a series of experiments in rats, researchers  examined the links between poor sleep and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—a psychiatric condition that affects an estimated 8 million Americans each year.

People with PTSD often experience nightmares and other types of sleep disturbances, such as frequent awakenings and insomnia. An initial thought was that those sleep disturbances may cause further cognitive impairment and worsen the effects of PTSD or the initial trauma. The researchers thus set out to see whether repairing the sleep disturbances associated with trauma exposure could help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.

Their study used methods reviewed and approved by Washington State University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees all university animal research procedures to ensure animals’ humane treatment throughout their lifecycle. This included a commonly used PTSD rodent model in combination with optogenetics, a technique that uses light-sensitive proteins to control the activity of brain cells.

After going through the PTSD protocol, rats were assigned to two groups. In one group, the researchers used optogenetic stimulation to activate melanin-concentrating hormone (MCH)—a sleep-promoting brain cell type—over a period of seven days. Animals in the second group served as controls.

Comparing the two groups, the researchers found that optogenetic stimulation increased the duration of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—the sleep phase thought to be important for learning and memory—across the rats’ rest and active phases.

The researchers then assessed the rats’ behavior on a three-day classical conditioning experiment involving a memory task. On day one, rats learned to associate an audible tone with the mildly unpleasant experience of receiving a small foot shock immediately after hearing the tone. After several occurrences, rats would freeze after hearing the tone, anticipating the foot shock. On day two, they heard the tone 30 times without receiving the shock, allowing them to gradually extinguish that memory. On the third day, the researchers played the tone 10 times to test to what extent the previous day’s memory extinction had stuck. They found that rats that had received optogenetic stimulation to increase their sleep time had more successfully extinguished the memory, freezing less than control rats.

toddler lying on pink fleece pad

It seems likely that if you are kept awake after a trauma, this could potentially be harmful to your cognitive function, though it wasn’t directly tested in this study. As an example, victims of traffic accidents,  may not get much opportunity to sleep as they are poked, prodded, examined, and treated after being hospitalized for injuries. Though prioritizing sleep may not be feasible in victims with potentially life-threatening injuries, increasing sleep in other trauma-exposed populations could practically be done. Military personnel coming back from  tour of duty could be encouraged to sleep and potentially be given sleep-promoting drugs to help them stave off any trauma they may have experienced.

Although these experiments suggest that manipulating sleep immediately after a trauma may be beneficial, such an intervention may or may not be effective for traumatic experiences that occurred in the more distant past. These researchers, consequently, now wish to pinpoint those molecules that are important for regulating sleep or learning and memory, to help them identify targets for the development of better drugs to help trauma-exposed populations.

Based on their findings, it is also suggested that the use of antidepressants known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in people with PTSD may need to be re-examined, as SSRIs are known to suppress REM sleep. Ultimately, we may be doing trauma  victims a disservice by prescribing drugs that actually eliminate a potential therapeutic avenue  by removing  REM sleep when these findings suggest that they should be increasing REM sleep.





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