Wake Therapy for Depression

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

The relationship between sleep deprivation and depression is far from straight forward. Depression can result in sleep disturbances, but sleep disturbances or deprivation can contribute to symptoms of depression. If that's not enough there is evidence that sleep deprivation in the form of interrupting sleep, can provide one of the fastest treatments for depression, a procedure sometimes known as wake therapy - but don't get too excited.

Wake therapy is part of a broader study of the therapeutic effects of the sleep-wake cycle known as chronotherapy. Wake therapy has been around for over 30 years and its positive effects are as dramatic as the speed of relapse. Interrupting the sleep cycle of a depressed person can result in an instant elevation of mood, but the problem is this lasts only for as long as the person stays awake. Its use therefore as an ongoing treatment method is problematic. Even so, the big question is, why does interrupting sleep have such a dramatic effect in the first place?

Researchers at Tufts University think part of the answer lies in cells called astrocytes, found in the brain and spinal cord. When we are awake astrocytes release a neurotransmitter called adenosine, as more is released during the day our sense of sleepiness increases. The team applied doses of a compound to mice that displayed depressive symptoms. The compound mimicked the effect of adenosine while mice slept normally, however after 12 hours mice showed rapid improvements in mood and behavior. With more testing, the team is optimistic that medication could be available in the future. If true it would put existing antidepressants well and truly into the shade.

Until such time it appears that wake therapy has limited scope and appeal. Some people combine its occasional use with light therapy and antidepressant medication and find the effects helpful. Needless to say practicalities are a big issue. Depriving ourselves of too much sleep, or too often, has implications for everything from an increased likelihood of accidents, to issues of concentration, judgment, memory and temperament as well as an increased risk of ill health. If you're thinking of going down this route it might be wise to talk it over with your doctor first and establish a routine that has the potential to help rather than make things worse.