PEOPLE who suffer from disrupted sleep patterns increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, according to new research.
Poor sleeping habits had been linked to the mental illness but, until now, it had been unclear whether it was a consequence of, or a cause of, the disorder.
Now scientists say that wave patterns in disturbed sleep closely match those of patients with the condition, suggesting sleep may be a trigger for the illness.
Researchers from Bristol University explored the impact irregular sleep patterns had on the brain by recording electrical activity in multiple brain regions during sleep.
Health experts say that for many people, a lack of sleep can affect mood, concentration and stress levels.
In extreme cases, prolonged sleep deprivation can induce hallucinations, memory loss and confusion – all of which are symptoms associated with schizophrenia.
Dr Ullrich Bartsch, one of the study’s researchers, said: “Sleep disturbances are well-documented in the disease, though often regarded as side-effects and poorly understood in terms of their potential to actually trigger its symptoms.”
In studying rates of disrupted sleep patterns, the team found desynchronisation of the waves of activity which normally travel from the front to the back of the brain during deep sleep.
In particular the information flow between the hippocampus – which controls memory formation – involved in decision-making appeared to be more disrupted in people who were poor sleepers.
These patterns and symptoms mirrored those seen in a large number of people with schizophrenia, the study in the medical journal Neuron said. Dr Matt Jones, also of Bristol University, said: “Sleep disturbances might be a cause, not just a consequence of schizophrenia. In fact, abnormal sleep patterns may trigger abnormal brain activity in a range of conditions.”
Schizophrenia is a disorder which affects thinking, feeling and behaviour. It usually begins in people aged 15 to 35. It affects people from all walks of life. Latest figures show it can affect as many as one in every 100 people in Scotland at least once during their lifetime.
Doctors say the mental illness could be caused by a number of factors including genetic links, damage to the brain during pregnancy or birth, stress and the use of recreational drugs such as ecstasy, LSD and cannabis.
After a first episode of schizophrenia, approximately one in five people recovers within five years, 65 per cent will have fluctuating problems over decades and one in ten will experience severe long-term problems.
Getting appropriate care and treatment for schizophrenia as soon as possible after symptoms appear results in a greater chance of a good recovery, doctors say.