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Schizophrenia Symptoms Can Be Replicated with 24 Hours of Sleep Deprivation

A fascinating study was recently conducted by researchers at the University of Bonn into the impact of staying awake for 24 hours straight. Their results revealed that the effect on the human body yields personality and emotional conditions that are extremely similar to that of the mental condition known as schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is characterized by auditory hallucinations, and is a condition that is usually treated with medication.

The Bonn researchers believe that their findings are particularly useful because they may lead to a greater understanding of the experience of psychosis, a condition which is described as losing contact with reality, and which is often associated with delusions and hallucinations.  They also provide evidence that those who perform shift work and work throughout the night may have a higher likelihood of developing mental disorders.

In order to conduct the study, the researchers worked with 24 adults between the ages of 18 and 40. The group was healthy and made up of both men and women. They submitted to sleeping in the Department of Psychology’s sleep lab for the night, then one week later they returned to the laboratory, but the second time they were kept awake throughout the entire evening by being shown movies, being invited to play games, and even going for walks. Following the sleepless night they interviewed regarding their experience, their emotions and how they felt. They also submitted to a prepulse inhibition measurement, which lead author Dr. Nadine Petrovsky explains “is a standard test to measure the filtering function of the brain.”

The prepulse inhibition test yields information about whether the brain is checking its own information for processing. When the brain is functioning properly this process is going on constantly in order to prevent itself from being overloaded with information. The researchers found that without sleep, the filtering capacity was severely impacted. Dr. Ulrich Ettinger of the Cognitive Psychology Unit of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bonn explains, “There were pronounced attention deficits, such as what typically occurs in the case of schizophrenia.” He said, “The unselected flood of information led to chaos in the brain.”

The researchers had expected that the test subjects would experience some confusion, but were surprised by the degree to which sleeplessness impacted them. Not only did they show evidence of shifts in their sense of time and smell, but some of them indicated that they believed themselves able to read the thoughts of others. The group’s members also complained of an increased sensitivity to light, color and brightness. According to Ettinger, “We did not expect that the symptoms could be so pronounced after one night spent awake.”

The researchers believe that this discovery will be useful in drug research for the treatment of psychosis. Previous drug tests have been accomplished by inducing psychosis through drugs, but believe that sleep deprivation may be used in a better way.

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