A new study from the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) suggests that sleep spindles, brief bursts of brain activity occurring during a phase of sleep, may regulate anxiety in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The findings contradict a recent study that indicated that spindles may heighten intrusive and violent thoughts in people with PTSD.
The UCSF study, published in the journal Sleep, involved 24 participants with PTSD who were monitored using polysomnography, a technique that records brain activity, eye movements, and other physiological parameters during sleep. The participants were asked to complete a memory task before going to bed and were then awakened during the night to repeat the task.
The researchers found that participants who had more sleep spindles had lower anxiety levels the next day, while those who had fewer spindles had higher anxiety levels. Furthermore, the participants who had more spindles were better able to transfer the new information from the memory task to longer-term memory storage.
“These findings suggest that sleep spindles may have a protective effect against anxiety in people with PTSD,” said senior author Anne Richards of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “They may also play a role in the consolidation of new memories, which is important for learning and remembering.”
The researchers note that the study is limited by its small sample size and the fact that it only included people with PTSD. They recommend further research to confirm the findings and explore the potential role of sleep spindles in anxiety disorders more broadly.
The study’s findings may have important implications for the treatment of PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Currently, many treatments for these conditions involve medication or therapy, but sleep may also play a critical role in recovery.
“Sleep is essential for both physical and mental health, and it is important for people with PTSD and other anxiety disorders to get enough high-quality sleep,” said Richards. “Understanding the role of sleep spindles in regulating anxiety and memory may help us develop new treatments that target this mechanism.”