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Patients Ask: What are the Effects of Insomnia on the Brain?

March 1, 2022Neelem Sheikh

Sleep is a critical part of our ability to function each day, yet many of us regularly are not getting enough sleep, particularly those suffering from sleeping disorders such as insomnia. 

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with up to 33% of adults struggling with chronic insomnia. While there are many causes of insomnia, it can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep or may cause individuals to wake up early and be unable to fall back asleep.

Insufficient sleep and chronic sleep deprivation have a profound impact, both in the short term and the long term, on almost every part of our overall health, including our brain health. It not only affects our mental health but also our neurocognitive function.

Let’s take a closer look at the effects of insomnia on the brain, including how it impacts mental health and neurocognitive function, and the risks associated with chronic insomnia.

Effects of Insomnia on the Brain

Insomnia can have a large impact on two important aspects of brain health: mental health and neurocognitive function. Some examples of the effects of insomnia on the brain are detailed below.

Effects of Insomnia on Mental and Behavioral Health

Mental and behavioral health is a significant part of our brain health as well as our overall health. This includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, all of which are factors that impact how we feel, think, and act.

Short-term effects of insomnia on mental and behavioral health may include:

  • Mood swings.
  • Increased stress responsivity.
  • Emotional distress.

Long-term effects of insomnia on mental and behavioral health may include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.

Effects of Insomnia on Neurocognitive Function

Neurocognitive function can be broken down into cognitive and functional aspects of brain health, where cognitive aspects refer to how we think and functional aspects refer to how we move. Neurocognitive brain health impacts our daily functioning and ability to complete our normal day-to-day activities (Activities of Daily Living).

Short-term effects of insomnia on neurocognitive function may include:

  • Short-term memory loss. 
  • An inability to concentrate.
  • Impulsive behavior.

Long-term effects of insomnia on neurocognitive function may include:

Poor Sleep as a Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s Disease

As mentioned above, research shows that poor sleep may increase the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. Many studies have assessed the relationship between sleep and neurodegenerative diseases, concluding that their relationship is bidirectional and highly complex.

In a review of 10 years of available literature (on Pubmed), relevant to the relationship between insomnia and neurodegenerative disease, researchers came to several conclusions:

  • Insomnia is an important risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. 
  • Chronic insomnia and poor sleep result in increased deposition of beta-amyloid and hyperphosphorylated tau proteins (two major neuropathological hallmarks for Alzheimer’s disease) in the brain.
  • To diagnose dementia early, it would be advisable to use cognitive screening questionnaires in all sleep clinics for insomnia patients over 50 years of age.

Monitoring Neurocognitive Function of Insomnia Patients

While further study is required to understand the sole contribution of insomnia to the development of neurodegenerative diseases, it appears there is a strong relationship with important implications. Individuals with insomnia or other potential risk factors for neurodegenerative disease should be frequently and regularly monitored for changes in mental health and neurocognitive function to understand the effects of insomnia on the brain. If changes in neurocognitive function indicative of neurocognitive impairment are detected early, patients can benefit from early intervention or treatment.

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