Recent laboratory studies employing an extended sleep deprivation model have mapped sleep-related changes in behavior onto functional alterations in specific brain regions supporting emotion, suggesting possible biological mechanisms for an association between sleep difficulties and deficits in emotion regulation. However, it is not yet known if similar behavioral and neural changes are associated with the more modest variability in sleep observed in daily life.
We examined relationships between sleep and neural circuitry of emotion using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and fMRI data from a widely used emotion regulation task focusing on cognitive reappraisal of negative emotional stimuli in an unselected sample of 97 adult volunteers (48 women; mean age 42.78±7.37 years, range 30–54 years old).
Emotion regulation was associated with greater activation in clusters located in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), and inferior parietal cortex. Only one subscale from the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, use of sleep medications, was related to BOLD responses in the dmPFC and dlPFC during cognitive reappraisal. Use of sleep medications predicted lesser BOLD responses during reappraisal, but other aspects of sleep, including sleep duration and subjective sleep quality, were not related to neural activation in this paradigm.
The relatively modest variability in sleep that is common in the general community is unlikely to cause significant disruption in neural circuits supporting reactivity or regulation by cognitive reappraisal of negative emotion. Use of sleep medication however, may influence emotion regulation circuitry, but additional studies are necessary to determine if such use plays a causal role in altering emotional responses.