Sleep Loss Leads to Euphoria and Risky Behavior

By Mathew Luschek
|  Wednesday, Mar 23, 2011  |  Updated 10:47 AM PDT
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Sleep Loss Leads to Euphoria

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Everyone knows a sleepless night can make one cranky and moody, but researchers at UC Berkeley have discovered another side effect of sleep loss.

Teaming up with Harvard Medical School, researchers at UC Berkeley studied the brains of healthy young adults and found their pleasure circuitry got a boost after missing a night of sleep, according to a news release.

In other words, the areas of the brain that cause people to feel euphoria was stimulated when sleep deprived. While this may sound great, it also leads to risky behavior.

"When functioning correctly, the brain finds the sweet spot on the mood spectrum. But the sleep-deprived brain will swing to both extremes, neither of which is optimal for making wise decisions," said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

"We need to ensure that people making high-stakes decisions, from medical professionals to airline pilots to new parents, get enough sleep," Walker said. "Based on this evidence, I’d be concerned by an emergency room doctor who’s been up for 20 hours straight making rational decisions about my health."

They found that people who did not sleep had more activity in the area of the brain driven by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates positive feelings, motivation, sex drive, addiction and decision making.

This research would explain why clinically depressed people feel more positive after a sleepless night, though only temporarily. It also means people who are feeling overly optimistic may make impulsive decisions.

As for a therapy for people who are clinically depressed, sleep deprivation is not a viable solution, says Walker.

"The elastic band of sleep deprivation can only be stretched so far before it breaks," Walker said.

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