UC Berkeley study explores link between sleep deprivation and mental health

Ben Greenberg, an assistant undergraduate student researcher for the study, said youth are ‘really concerned’ about their sleep.
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
Ben Greenberg, an assistant undergraduate student researcher for the study, said youth are ‘really concerned’ about their sleep.

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About 4 in the morning, a well-placed wanderer may spot UC Berkeley sophomore Steven Harvey roaming around Telegraph Avenue, head down in a hoodie and lost in thought. He walks with rapid determination, pursuing nothing but the mental exhaustion that will finally let him get some sleep.

“Then I lay down, I pray, relax and think,” Harvey said. “If it was a more stressful day, I’ll have a harder time sleeping because I’m thinking about the (stuff) I can’t get off my mind. I just can’t fall asleep — my body’s too awake.”

Harvey suffers from mild cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and insomnia, which researchers call a common, if not causal, combination. Although the correlation is significant, researchers cannot agree on whether daytime hyperactivity such as Harvey’s lends itself to restlessness at night or whether sleep deprivation initiates attention disruptions during the following day.

“A lot of times, things go together in medicine and mental health, and when there’s a correlation between two variables, we don’t know: Does A cause B, does B cause A, or does C cause A and B to go together?” said Stephen Hinshaw, a UC Berkeley psychology professor who studies ADHD in adolescents and serves as a consultant for the study.

In light of what Hinshaw calls the “billion-dollar question,” UC Berkeley psychology professor Allison Harvey at the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic recently launched a program to study whether modifying sleeping behaviors of local teenagers can help alleviate mental or emotional issues or at least slow down what Allison Harvey calls a “bidirectional vicious cycle,” in which one issue exacerbates another.

“Sleep deprivation is an understudied contributor to the multifactorial cause of mental illness, and it’s also one of the things that fuels them,” Allison Harvey said. “But the good news is it’s a modifiable contributor.”

The study, which began in the spring and will run each semester until 2016, brings together youth between the ages of 10 and 18 who have trouble falling asleep at night and who also suffer from emotional or mental issues or difficulties with learning or behavior.

Throughout the six-week program, the team will employ several “de-arousal techniques” such as yoga, meditation, a tuning-in with nature and a “focus of attention out rather than in,” Allison Harvey said. The team also administers an “electronics curfew” because light exposure inhibits drowsiness due to the rapid pathways from the neurons to the region of the brain responsible for sleep regulation.

More than 20 assistant undergraduate student researchers, called “sleep buddies,” are on deck to help maintain this specific environment conducive for sleeping. Ben Greenberg, a third-year UC Berkeley student and buddy team leader who plays board games with kids, said students must wear special goggles when they leave their rooms to keep light exposure down and their heart rates constant.

When the teens fall asleep and wake up, they must press a button on an advanced “actiwatch” that tracks their sleeping behaviors by monitoring the teens’ movement and blood pressure.

During the first overnight stay last month, the undergraduate researchers took samples of the youths’ saliva every 20 minutes and checked for melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone whose onset signifies an individual’s natural “bedtime.” At the end of the six-week period, researchers will take a second group of measurements in an assessment to see whether they were able to push forward the onset of melatonin.

“The assumption is there’s a sleep disorder with repercussions across the board, and the only thing you can do is get a sleeping pill or treat it biologically,” Hinshaw said. “But a lot of biological things in life you can treat by altering life circumstances or changing the environment, and symptoms get better.”

For many students, sleep deprivation manifests in an inability to perform well at school and control rash behaviors, which campus associate professor of psychology Silvia Bunge attributes to a decrease in the frontal lobe’s communicative capabilities.

Steven Harvey says when he has not slept, he becomes moody and angry and is more likely to fire off at somebody. He added that he has trouble paying attention to his professors, on occasion sleeping in class and often staying up until sunrise to complete work for class.

“After sleep deprivation, the frontal lobes are less active and not as connected with other parts of the brain responsible for good decision-making,” Bunge said. “In adolescents, these connections become even more tenuous; the prefrontal cortex is interacting with all these different regions, but it’s not talking very quickly.”

Although some may assume parents are pushing youth to participate in these programs, Steven Harvey said sleep deprivation has been such a serious aspect of his life that while growing up, he would have participated in similar programs in a heartbeat.

Greenberg said it is this intrinsic motivation that keeps participants coming each week.

“I thought, ‘They’re all going to be so resistant,’ but it turned out these kids are actually really concerned about their sleep,” Greenberg said.

Hinshaw added that he believes kids are also eager to help advance science and that they have both a natural curiosity and motivation to get help.

“We don’t have a cure — it’s not going to change every kid to a great sleeper, but we can see which kids do best and why,” Hinshaw said. “When we can simultaneously help kids and advance science — that combination when you do intervention research is why I do the work I do.”

Virgie Hoban is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @VirgieHoban.

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