Study: All-Nighters Can Induce Euphoria

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Claire Perlman talks about euphoria as an effect of sleeplessness.

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The lack of sleep faced by students who stay up all night finishing an essay, soldiers who spend the night fighting and doctors treating patients for 20 hours straight may cause an overly sunny perspective of the world, according to UC Berkeley researchers.

The study, published March 23 in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that an emotional imbalance occurs after an all-nighter, creating a kind of euphoria that can lead to risky behavior.

"Although we have not directly tested the following scenario, it is plausible that people with chronic sleep-deprivation develop the lopsided emotional balance toward the things around them (and) may pursue things, such as things (that) involve some risk-taking, that people would tend to avoid," said Seung-Schik Yoo, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the study, in an email.

The study comes on the heels of another study conducted by the same lab, published March 8 in the journal Current Biology. It addresses the importance of a full night's sleep in the process of transferring information in the brain from the region associated with daily memory, the hippocampus, to long-term storage.

Sleep deprivation is known to cause exaggerated reactions to negative stimuli, but the effects it can have in a sleep-deprived person's response to pleasant stimuli have remained relatively unknown, according to the study.

With this research, Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study, and his team explored the feelings of euphoria - described in the study as "episodes of inappropriate euphoria and giddiness and oscillating periods of lopsided positive emotional reactivity" - that can occur after a sleepless night.

Twenty-seven adults between the ages of 18 and 30 were divided into a sleep-deprivation group and a control group. The sleep-deprived group was kept awake for two days and a night.

On the second day, both groups were asked to look at photographs with different emotional content and assess their response to it as their brain activity was scanned using magnetic resonance imaging, Yoo said in the email.

Sleep-deprived participants displayed a "disproportionate positive response bias" in terms of the number of photographs they rated as "pleasant" as opposed to "neutral," the study states.

The scans showed heightened activity in the mesolimbic networks of the brain, which are driven by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain's reaction to pleasure.

However, an overly optimistic view of the world, which sleep-deprived participants in the study demonstrated, can create recklessness and a disregard for consequences.

Favoring the extremes when sleep-deprived - both the intensified positive and negative reactions to stimuli - can induce poor judgment, according to the study.

"Optimal evaluation and interpretation of pleasurable, rewarding experiences allows for the development of actions and decisions toward fitness-enhancing outcomes," the study states. "However, pleasure-seeking can also lead to deleterious and life-threatening behaviors, exemplified by abusive drug addiction, impulsive thrill seeking and adverse risk taking."

Though the study states that more research is needed, the findings could provide researchers with better insight into temporary mood improvement felt by people with depression after pulling an all-nighter, as well as possible treatment for depression.


Clare Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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