Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sleepless nights can lead to risky behavior

March 24, 2011

Researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School have found that the same neural pathway that stimulates feelings of euphoria, reward, and motivation after a sleepless night may also lead to risky behavior, says Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of 27 young adults, half of whom got a good night’s rest and the other half of whom pulled an all-nighter.  Brain scans of the participants who pulled all-nighters showed heightened activity in the mesolimbic pathway, a brain circuit driven by dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates positive feelings, motivation, sex drive, addiction, cravings and decision making.

The findings build upon previous research by Walker and his team that shows sleep deprivation shuts down the brain’s key planning and decision-making regions — namely the prefrontal cortex — while activating more primal neural functions, such as the fight-or-flight reflex in the amygdala region of the brain.

A bias toward the positive, potentially linked to a short-term boost in dopamine levels,  may seem advantageous, but it can be detrimental if people make impulsive decisions because they’re feeling overly optimistic, says Walker.

Their work appears March 22 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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