Sleep deprivation can markedly impair human performance contributing to accidents and poor productivity. The mechanisms underlying this impairment are not well understood but brain dopamine systems have been implicated. Here we test whether one night of sleep deprivation changes dopamine brain activity. We studied fifteen healthy subjects using positron emission tomography and [11C]raclopride (dopamine D2/3 receptor radioligand) and [11C]cocaine (dopamine transporter radioligand). Subjects were tested twice; after one night of rested sleep and after on night of sleep deprivation. [11C]Raclopride’s specific binding in striatum and thalamus were significantly reduced after sleep deprivation and the magnitude of this reduction correlated with increases in fatigue (tiredness and sleepiness) and with deterioration in cognitive performance (visual attention and working memory). In contrast sleep deprivation did not affect the specific binding of [11C]cocaine in striatum. Since [11C]raclopride competes with endogenous dopamine for binding to D2/D3 receptors, we interpret the decreases in binding to reflect dopamine increases with sleep deprivation. However, we can not rule out the possibility that decreased [11C]raclopride binding reflects decreases in receptor levels or affinity. Sleep deprivation did not affect dopamine transporters (target for most wake-promoting medications) and thus dopamine increases are likely to reflect increases in dopamine cell firing and/or release rather than decreases in dopamine reuptake. Inasmuch as dopamine-enhancing drugs increase wakefulness we postulate that dopamine increases after sleep deprivation is a mechanism by which the brain maintains arousal as the drive to sleep increases but one that is insufficient to counteract behavioral and cognitive impairment.
Keywords: dopamine transporters, striatum, thalamus, visual attention, PET, circadian rhythms