Researchers at University of California at Irvine have the news that may tantalize college students everywhere: pulling an all-nighter may actually be beneficial to one's health.
But don't set up camp at Perkins just yet. The study found that all-nighters can have specific health benefits only for depressed patients.
"There is no evidence that all-nighters are good for anyone besides temporarily alleviating severe depression," said Dr. Joseph Wu, the study's lead author.
Wu said the study found no improvement in control patients after sleep deprivation, adding that he had no data regarding the effect on insomniacs.
"Basically, if you're not depressed, sleep deprivation will just make you cranky," said Dr. Gail Marsh, a Duke associate professor of psychology who was not affiliated with the study.
The general benefits of sleep deprivation for depressed patients have been known for at least a decade, Marsh said. However, this latest study found that depressed patients who experience sleep deprivation and improve in condition have a different brain image than those who do not.
"Those who respond [to sleep deprivation] have an abnormally active emotional brain center, called the cingulate, compared to abnormally underactive cingulates in those who do not respond," Wu said.
Dr. Christian Gillin of the University of California at San Diego emphasized that sleep deprivation is a model of an antidepressant theory. "It demonstrates that there is a physiological basis for the antidepressant response," he said.
"I think the importance [of the study] is the ability to use brain imaging to help categorize depressed patients by treatment response," Wu said. "Such categorization could become useful for psychiatrists of the future to help them more rapidly pick the right medication for depression without so much trial and error."
Addressing concerns about altering the sleep patterns of the depressed, Wu cautioned that sleep deprivation should only be performed under supervision of a physician familiar with the technique.
"I would not recommend that a patient or a non-physician 'mess' around with sleep patterns of depressed patients," he explained.
Although it is a fairly common practice in Europe, physicians in the United States seem far from ready to prescribe sleep deprivation to their depressed patients. "When patients in America go to see a doctor they expect to get some type of a drug, maybe even a pill," said Marsh. "While drugs are certainly beneficial, an alteration of behavior is sometimes more effective," he added.
Although researchers stress that health benefits have not been discovered for non-depressed people, the chemicals secreted by the brain could make one think otherwise.
Marsh said serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is constantly produced by the body. But, when one falls asleep, serotonin production levels drop significantly and come to a complete stop during REM sleep.
"Sleep deprivation stimulates the brain to pump ser0tonin into the parts of the brain responsible for expressing emotions," he said. Marsh likened sleep deprivation to exercising, which produces a feeling of being more "on top of the world." Marsh was quick to clarify that exercising also produces natural opiates in addition to serotonin.
Some students seemed to agree.
"I feel more on the edge and intoxicated-without alcohol," said Brian Cornell, a second-year Divinity student. And James Evans, a Trinity sophomore, said that after staying up for two nights straight, he feels pretty good.