Insomniacs' brains lose focus, scans suggest

Woman with insomnia

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Brain scans of people who say they have insomnia have shown differences in brain function compared with people who get a full night's sleep.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, said the poor sleepers struggled to focus part of their brain in memory tests.

Other experts said that the brain's wiring may actually be affecting perceptions of sleep quality.

The findings were published in the journal Sleep.

People with insomnia struggle to sleep at night, but it also has consequences during the day such as delayed reaction times and memory.

The study compared 25 people who said they had insomnia with 25 who described themselves as good sleepers. MRI brain scans were carried out while they performed increasingly challenging memory tests.

One of the researchers, Prof Sean Drummond, said: "We found that insomnia subjects did not properly turn on brain regions critical to a working memory task and did not turn off 'mind-wandering' brain regions irrelevant to the task.

"This data helps us understand that people with insomnia not only have trouble sleeping at night, but their brains are not functioning as efficiently during the day."

A sleep researcher in the UK, Dr Neil Stanley, said that the quality of the sleep each group was having was very similar, even though one set was reporting insomnia.

He said: "What's the chicken and what's the egg? Is the brain different and causing them to report worse sleep?

"Maybe they're perceiving what happened in the night differently; maybe what is affecting their working memory and ability to focus on the task at hand is also causing insomnia."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Every time the BBC runs a brief story on a new scientific paper the same ignorant comments appear, along the lines of "Everyone knows that", "Waste of money", etc. Reporters routinely read the abstract and conclusions to papers and turn them into a few soundbites, while ignoring the pages of graphs and tables containing detailed data which may help scientists better understand the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    i dont usually suffer with insomnia, but there are times when I do have difficulty sleeping. I have recently started a new, quite physical job, 12 hr shifts involving quite heavy manual labour shifting heavy palettes, yet I cannot sleep when i go to bed.

    I need time to wind down my brain before going to bed. sadly I cant just go from highly mentally active to sleep like turning off a light

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    "Having nothing better to say, he swore." - attrib Blake. I would say that many of the remarks so far made - their uncouth expressions of irrelevancies - amount to swearing, with all this implies for their authors.

    An interesting aspect of this research is the reported lack of difference between the 2 groups in sleep quality. How was this measured, exactly, and with what validation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    So, we can have an HYS about a scientific discovery that states the bloomin' obvious. yet we cannot discuss the government's bullying of David Miranda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    With such a small sample, + no mention of qualifying "25 people who said they had insomnia with 25 who described themselves as good sleepers", were they testing the brain in insomniacs or the self-perception or people (or both)?

    Were the altered brain images actually happening in people who actually were sufferers?

    Was the sample tainted by any hypochondriacs present?

    Poor detail (by the BBC?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @38.Think Tank
    "If I release a ball it moves towards the Earth. It's bleedin' obvious there's a force involved"

    I should wind your neck in if I were you, unless displaying your ignorance is a hobby.

    Gravity is not a force. You're confusing Einsteinian & Newtonian physics - not that you would know.

    In short: matter tells space how to bend, space tells objects how to move (e.g., ball 'falling').

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    38.Think Tank "If I release a ball it moves towards the Earth. It's "bleedin' obvious there's a force involved"

    Strange. It wasn't obvious to anyone before Newton came up with the theory of gravity and defined a few terms precisely - including "force".
    Before then many people probably thought the force involved was God. And they thought *that* was bleedin' obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @32 Denaris

    There is no such thing as 'insomnia' is just an excuse for...
    Why is it that the UK has no shortage of people eager to dismiss the problems of others & seem to have no empathy at all?

    Any other conditions you want to trivialise, e.g. Migraine - Go for a walk, Depression - Pull yourself together.

    Insomnia has many potential causes & certainly isn't just caused by lack of exercise!

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.


    Thank you for your expert advice Professor Denaris. I'll change my career from office based to building site based immediately and instead of jogging five miles of an evening I'll go the whole hog and run a marathon twice a day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.


    If she's suffering insomnia you wouldn't sleep.

    And it would definitely be all your fault.


  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    @24 fuzzy

    If I release a ball it moves towards the Earth. It's "bleedin' obvious there's a force involved"

    I'm not a priest, my theory isn't worthless (albeit not quantified) and ino Wives' tales are involved.

    Just an observation - not a generalisation about the abilities of strangers (not that you are capable of avoiding such, going by your comments)

    Also: Water runs downhill!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I dont sleep much, never have and im not going to start worrying about it now. These scientists need to justify their research grants, thats all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    You can tell the difference in somone's brain whether they're thinking of apples or oranges. I don't think this is particularly groundbreaking.

    Although I'm sure the actual research has some meaningful conclusions. Shame the BBC has decided we're too thick to understand it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I have been diagnosed with dyspraxia and ADHD...classic 'brain wandering',and have huge problems with sleep dysfunction. And for those of you rolling you eyes at this, I was thrown off my social work degree a few weeks before graduation for being 'too disabled' to be a social worker! The problems with time perception, direction, laterality, memory are all too real.I'm sure it's a sleep disorder...

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    There are sleep tracker apps that track your movement during the night. They aren't perfect (I lie perfectly still when trying to get to sleep and the app interprets that as being in deep sleep) but are still useful if you learn to interpret the graphs properly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I wouldn't even contemplate going to sleep if I was sharing a bed with the woman in the picture.

  • Comment number 32.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Never have trouble sleeping - but I do have a lot of quality sex

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    26 I believe the definition has been expanded to include such a use. After all Jessica Ennis did say she was literally speechless after winning her gold medal.Grammatically incorrect then but not so now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Maybe if we didn't have to work a 60 hour week and STILL be skint we might sleep easier at night?


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