Sleep deprivation in the first hours after exposure to a significantly stressful event reduces the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to the researchers behind a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
The researchers, from Ben-Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, say that around 20 percent of people exposed to a severe traumatic event, such as a car accident or terrorist attack, cannot carry on their lives normally. "They retain the memory of the event for many years. It causes considerable difficulties in the person's functioning in daily life and, in extreme cases, may render the individual completely dysfunctional," said researcher Hagit Cohen, director of the Anxiety and Stress Research Unit at Ben-Gurion University.
The role of sleep in memory formation is still not clearly understood but scientists agree it is critical in the formation of persistent memories. Cohen said that because memory is a significant component in the development of post-traumatic symptoms, he and co-researcher Joseph Zohar decided to examine the effects of sleep deprivation immediately after exposure to trauma.
In Cohen's experiments, rats that underwent 6 hours of sleep deprivation after exposure to trauma (predator scent stress exposure), did not later exhibit behavior indicating memory of the event, while a control group of rats that was allowed to sleep after the stress exposure did remember, as shown by their post trauma-like behavior.
"As is the case for human populations exposed to severe stress, 15 to 20 percent of the animals develop long-term disruptions in their behavior," says Cohen. "Our research method for this study is, we believe, a breakthrough in biomedical research."
Cohen's study suggests that sleep deprivation in the first hours after stress exposure might represent a simple, yet effective, intervention for PTSD. A pilot study in humans is currently being planned.
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