Authors: Alice Weatherston
In contrast to previously held beliefs, preliminary work from researchers at The University of Oxford (UK) has recently indicated that sleep deprivation may actually aid in preventing individuals from consolidating memories of trauma. The work was published in the journal Sleep.
The study, which was carried out at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (Oxford, UK), exposed volunteers to emotional film clips and analyzed their responses following varying levels of sleep.
Kate Porcheret, from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences (Oxford, UK) explained: “We wanted to see what effect sleep deprivation would have on the development of intrusive memories – what in a clinical setting are called flashbacks. After showing participants a film of scenes with traumatic content, as an analogue to trauma, they were either kept in a sleep laboratory and deprived of sleep or sent home to have a normal night’s sleep in their own bed.”
Subsequent to this, any intrusive memories experienced by the volunteers were recorded in a personal diary. The entries included details of the flashbacks, however short they were, and participants were encouraged to include as much information as possible so that the team could reliably link the intrusive images to the original film.
“The sleep-deprived group experienced fewer intrusive memories than those who had been able to sleep normally. Both groups experienced more of these involuntary memories in the first two days and a reducing number in the following days. We know that sleep improves memory performance including emotional memory, but there may be a time when remembering in this way is unhelpful,” explained Katharina Wulff (Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute).
The team believe that the study warrants further investigation into intrusive memories of emotional events in addition to the role of sleep in responding to real trauma as opposed to experimental trauma.
Porcheret concluded: ‘Finding out more [about]how sleep and trauma interact means we can ensure people are well cared for after a traumatic event. These are really important research questions to pursue further. For example, it is still common for patients to receive sedatives after a traumatic event to help them sleep, even though we already know that for some very traumatized people this may be the wrong approach. That is why we need more research in both experimental and clinical settings into how our response to psychological trauma is affected by sleep – and lack of sleep too.’