Sleep triggered by stress can help mice cope with later anxiety

Stress boosts a kind of sleep in mice that subsequently relieves anxiety, according to new research that also pinpoints the mechanism responsible.

Since sleep is similar across mammals, it is likely the same mechanism is triggered in human brains. Uncovering the mechanism could lead to artificial ways to boost its effects, helping to treat persistent stress disorders such as PTSD.

We often think of stress keeping us awake at night, but certain kinds of stress actually appear to induce sleep. Now, a study led by researchers at Imperial College London and institutions in China has uncovered how this happens in the brains of mice.

As well as discovering how sleep is induced, they reported that the sleep experienced by the mice appears to lower their anxiety levels the next day. The findings are reported today in the journal Science.

There are two main types of sleep that we, and all mammals experience: REM (rapid eye movement, where we tend to dream), and non-REM (NREM; deeper, dreamless sleep). People who suffer from PTSD experience less REM sleep, contributing to the theory that REM sleep helps us process difficult emotions and stress.

Lead researcher Professor Bill Wisden, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: “Our results add weight to the idea that REM sleep helps us cope with stress. However, we previously only knew about ways REM sleep is reduced, such as some drugs that suppress it.

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