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Losing sleep, losing brain?

Chronic and severely stressful situations, like those connected to depression and posttraumatic stress disorder, have been associated with smaller volumes in "stress sensitive" brain regions, such as the cingulate region of the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory formation. A new study, published by Elsevier in Biological Psychiatry, suggests that chronic insomnia may be another condition associated with reduced cortical volume.

Using a specialized technique called voxel-based morphometry, Ellemarije Altena and Ysbrand van der Werf from the research group of Eus van Someren evaluated the brain volumes of persons with chronic insomnia who were otherwise psychiatrically healthy, and compared them to healthy persons without sleep problems. They found that insomnia patients had a smaller volume of gray matter in the left orbitofrontal cortex, which was strongly correlated with their subjective severity of insomnia.

"We show, for the first time, that insomnia patients have lower grey matter density in brain regions involved in the evaluation of the pleasantness of stimuli, as well as in regions related to the brain's 'resting state'. The more severe the sleeping problems of insomniacs, the less grey matter density they have in the region involved in pleasantness evaluation, which may also be important for the recognition of optimal comfort to fall asleep," explained Altena. She added, "Our group previously showed that insomniacs have difficulties with recognizing optimal comfort. These findings urge further investigation into the definition of subtypes of insomnia and their causal factors, for which we have now initiated the Netherlands Sleep Registry."

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, that "insomnia is a common feature of nearly every psychiatric condition associated with reduced cortical volume; in fact, it is a common symptom of psychiatric disorders or high levels of life stress, generally. The study by Altena and colleagues suggests that there are additional risks of not treating insomnia, such as detrimental effects on the microstructure of the brain."

Notes to Editors:

The article is "Reduced Orbitofrontal and Parietal Gray Matter in Chronic Insomnia: A Voxel-Based Morphometric Study" by Ellemarije Altena, Hugo Vrenken, Ysbrand D. Van Der Werf, Odile A. van den Heuvel, and Eus J.W. Van Someren. The principal investigators Altena, Van Der Werf, and Van Someren are affiliated with the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. All authors are also affiliated with VU University Medical Center (VUMC), Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 67, Issue 2 (January 15, 2010), published by Elsevier.

The authors' disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D. is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available at

Full text of the article mentioned above is available upon request. Contact Maureen Hunter at to obtain a copy or to schedule an interview.

About Biological Psychiatry

This international rapid-publication journal is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry. It covers a broad range of topics in psychiatric neuroscience and therapeutics. Both basic and clinical contributions are encouraged from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major neuropsychiatric disorders. Full-length and Brief Reports of novel results, Commentaries, Case Studies of unusual significance, and Correspondence and Comments judged to be of high impact to the field are published, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Concise Reviews and Editorials that focus on topics of current research and interest are also published rapidly.

Biological Psychiatry ( is ranked 4th out of the 101 Psychiatry titles and 14th out of 219 Neurosciences titles on the 2008 ISI Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Scientific.

About Elsevier

Elsevier is a world-leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical information products and services. The company works in partnership with the global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals, including the Lancet ( and Cell (, and close to 20,000 book titles, including major reference works from Mosby and Saunders. Elsevier's online solutions include ScienceDirect (, Scopus (, Reaxys (, MD Consult ( and Nursing Consult (, which enhance the productivity of science and health professionals, and the SciVal suite ( and MEDai's Pinpoint Review (, which help research and health care institutions deliver better outcomes more cost-effectively.

A global business headquartered in Amsterdam, Elsevier ( employs 7,000 people worldwide. The company is part of Reed Elsevier Group PLC (, a world-leading publisher and information provider. The ticker symbols are REN (Euronext Amsterdam), REL (London Stock Exchange), RUK and ENL (New York Stock Exchange).

Maureen Hunter | EurekAlert!
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