Research Shows Insomnia May Be All in Your Head

Patient Expert

Research is showing that insomnia may truly be all in your head. Not meaning it is imagined, but that the brains of insomniacs are truly different than the brains of healthy sleepers.

Researchers at John Hopkins report  individuals with chronic insomnia have more activity and plasticity in the area of the brain that is responsible for controlling movement when compared to good sleepers.  They go on to report that insomnia is not just a disorder that occurs at night, is a 24-hour condition. They liken it to a switch that never gets turned off.

The term "plastic" refers to the increased ability to adapt to change. Those who have chronic insomnia may also have a motor cortex that is more heightened than normal sleepers. Researchers at John Hopkins report that the neurons in the same centers of the brain of chronic insomniacs are more excitable than those of good sleepers.

In layman's terms, this provides some evidence that proves insomniacs are in a continual state of information processing that is repeatedly heightened - as such, sleep is difficult.

The study was conducted on 28 participants. Ten were good sleepers; 18 had been suffering from insomnia for more than a year. The participants had electrodes placed on their dominant thumbs, as well as a meter that was able to measure the direction and speed of the thumb.

Each participant was given 65 electrical impulses that stimulated areas of the motor cortex. The involuntary movement of the thumb was noted and linked to the stimulation. After a period of 30 minutes, each participant was trained how to move their thumb in the opposite direction of their involuntary movement. The pulses were then repeated.

The study was done to measure each participant's motor cortex plasticity and to see the extent of each individual's ability to learn how to move their thumb in the newly trained direction. The idea was that the more movement that was made in the newly trained direction, the more plasticity the individual had in their motor cortex.

Since insomnia is linked to decreased memory and concentration, the researchers at John Hopkins assumed the brains of the good sleepers would be more easily retrained. However, the results of the study found the opposite to be true.  It was the chronic insomniacs who were found to have more plasticity in their brains.

At this time, scientsits are unsure as to why the brain of an insominac can easily adaot to change. It is also not known whether this increase promotes, is the cause of, or the result of insomnia. Researchers did say that chronic insomniacs generally experience an increased metabolism, increased cortisol levels, and higher levels of anxiety. They question if this may be linked to the plasticity, but the research has yet to be performed.

Each new bit of knowledge that is learned about insomnia brings science one step closer to finding a cure. Until then, those who deal with insomnia are encouraged to seek out the help of a physician.

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land's free online sleep training course for insomnia. Over 2,500 insomniacs have completed his course and 98% of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.


Salas, Rachel E. et al. "Increased Use-Dependent Plasticity in Chronic Insomnia." Sleep 37.3 (2014): 535-544. PMC. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

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