Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a horrifying and traumatic event. While the disorder is characterized by intense anxiety, this symptom often translates into nightmares and difficulty sleeping. This disruption of sleep has led researchers to observe how sleep effects PTSD treatment. In a study conducted by the University of California, San Diego Health Sciences and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that the role of sleep is largely influential in the effectiveness of mental health treatment, specifically for those with PTSD.

Observing Threat and Safety Signals

Researchers recruited 42 healthy participants and tested them over the course of three consecutive days and nights. They were interested in investigating two forms of behavioral training: fear-conditioning, in which participants are conditioned to respond to stimuli that represent threats, and safety signal learning, in which participants are conditioned to respond to stimuli that represent safety. Conductors of the study noted that for those with PTSD, the distinction between threat and safety can be difficult to observe.

The Relationship between Sleep and PTSD

Researchers found a positive correlation between increased safety signaling and human REM sleep. When participants were able to reach REM sleep, the deepest stage in the sleep cycle, they were more likely to differentiate between a threatening stimuli and a safe stimuli the next day. Conversely, Sean P.A. Drummond, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, noted that poor sleep would have an adverse affect on someone with PTSD. "[Our study] strongly implies a mechanism by which poor sleep may impair the ability of an individual to fully benefit from exposure-based PTSD treatments," says Drummond.

Drummond also made a point of acknowledging that the study's findings are not conclusive. A comparable study on animals has yet to be administered and the relationship between safety, REM sleep, and PTSD needs further scientific investigation. With large PTSD populations, however, the demand for more studies involving different factors of treatment is high.

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Sean P.A. Drummon, PhD. Anisa J. Marshall. Dean T. Acheson. Victoria B. Risbrough. Fear Conditioning, Safety Learning, and Sleep in Humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 27 August 2014. DOI: 34(35):11754-11760

Date of original publication:

Updated: November 10, 2015