Megan Brooks

June 11, 2012

June 11, 2012 (Boston, Massachusetts) — Sleep deprivation impairs regions of the brain involved in making food choices and may lead to unhealthy food choices, results of 2 separate studies suggest.

"We think this is one potential mechanism related to the overall link between sleep deprivation and obesity," Stephanie M. Greer, PhD, from the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, University of California (UC), Berkeley, who presented 1 of the studies, told Medscape Medical News.

The findings of both studies were presented here at SLEEP 2012: Associated Professional Sleep Societies 26th Annual Meeting.

In the first study, investigators conducted 2 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) examinations in 16 healthy adults aged 18 to 25 years after a night of normal sleep and again after a night of sleep deprivation. After both exams, the researchers had participants rate their current desire for 80 food items from a range of different food categories and types.

"Our goal was to see if specific regions of the brain associated with food processing were disrupted by sleep deprivation," Dr. Greer said.

The results showed that sleep deprivation selectively and significantly impaired brain activity in the frontal lobe, a region critical for controlling behavior and making complex choices, such as what to eat.

The findings "support a model" in which sleep deprivation compromises appropriate food choices by impairing integration of complex appetite signals in the frontal lobe, the researchers say.

"Under sleep deprivation," said Dr. Greer, "a smaller percentage of subjects seem to be using health information in their decision on food choice. We also found a smaller reduction in how much they are taking taste into account. We consider this an overall profile of not integrating important food signals under sleep deprivation."

"It's not necessarily the brain leading you to overconsumption but potentially leading you to the consumption of the wrong things rather than the right things. This study shows that the brain, particularly those frontal regions that integrate information to make the optimal choice could be failing (under sleep deprivation)," study coauthor Matthew Walker, PhD, also from the UC Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, told Medscape Medical News.

A Complementary Study

A related fMRI study also suggests that sleep restriction increases the neuronal response to unhealthy food stimuli.

A study conducted by investigators at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center and Columbia University in New York City showed that during a period of restricted sleep, the sight of images of unhealthy food among a normal-weight cohort of men and women led to greater activation of specific reward centers in the brain compared with the reactions to images of healthy foods or nonfood items. This effect was "specific to restricted sleep as this neuronal pattern was not observed following a period of adequate sleep," they note.

"These results suggest that restricting sleep may lead to an increased susceptibility to unhealthy foods by modulating the brain's homeostatic control system and may partly explain the increased overall appetite and desire for high fat and sweet foods that are recorded after a night of restricted sleep," the investigators, led by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, conclude.

"These 2 studies are largely complementary and the message is somewhat similar in the sense that insufficient sleep leads to changes in the way the brain processes and decides upon foods; that's a common message from the 2 studies," said Dr. Walker.

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2012: Associated Professional Sleep Societies 26th Annual Meeting. Abstracts #0295 and #0300. Presented June 10, 2012.

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