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Could one sleepless night help cure depression? 

(Photo by Guido Mieth/Moment RF/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Most people who have pulled an all-nighter are all too familiar with that “tired and wired” feeling. Although the body is physically exhausted, the brain feels slap-happy, loopy and almost giddy.

Now, Northwestern University neurobiologists are the first to uncover what produces this punch-drunk effect.

In a new study, researchers induced mild, acute sleep deprivation in mice and then examined their behaviors and brain activity. Not only did dopamine release increase during the acute sleep loss period, synaptic plasticity also was enhanced — literally rewiring the brain to maintain the bubbly mood for the next few days.

These new findings could help researchers better understand how mood states transition naturally. It also could lead to a more complete understanding of how fast-acting antidepressants (like ketamine) work and help researchers identify previously unknown targets for new antidepressant medications.

“Chronic sleep loss is well studied, and it’s uniformly detrimental effects are widely documented,” Professor Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy said. “But brief sleep loss — like the equivalent of a student pulling an all-nighter before an exam — is less understood. We found that sleep loss induces a potent antidepressant effect and rewires the brain. This is an important reminder of how our casual activities, such as a sleepless night, can fundamentally alter the brain in as little as a few hours.”

The team’s novel experiment on mice without genetic predispositions to human mood disorders reveals behavioral shifts towards aggression, hyperactivity, and increased sexuality after sleep deprivation. This was accompanied by heightened dopamine neuron activity.

“We were curious which specific regions of the brain were responsible for the behavioral changes. We wanted to know if it was a large, broadcast signal that affected the entire brain or if it was something more specialized,” Prof. Kozorovitskiy explains.

But the researchers caution against using sleep deprivation as a mood enhancer.

“The antidepressant effect is transient, and we know the importance of a good night’s sleep. Rather than resorting to all-nighters, healthier alternatives like exercising or walking are advisable. I would say you are better off hitting the gym or going for a nice walk. This new knowledge is more important when it comes to matching a person with the right antidepressant,” Prof. Kozorovitskiy concludes.