Cardiff Uni: Sleep engineering 'could help treat PTSD'

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Media captionProf Penny Lewis says sleep engineering can help improve slow-wave sleep which affects memory, brain health and even susceptibility to dementia

Scientists believe sleep manipulation could help to tackle anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Psychologists at Cardiff University are working on a number of projects looking at the health benefits of "sleep engineering".

The team is considering ways of "decoupling" emotions from troubling memories during rest.

Sleep expert Prof Penny Lewis said the research area was new and "really exciting".

Post-traumatic stress disorder is believed to affect one-in-three people who suffer a traumatic event, with thousands of sufferers in the UK, including many armed forces veterans.

Prof Lewis, who is based as the university's CUBRIC neuroscience institute, believes the brain's processing of emotions during sleep could hold one of the keys to treating the debilitating disorder.

"Sometimes things happen to you in your life that you don't want to remember in graphic detail, like if you've been mugged or had an accident for instance," she said.

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"And it's important over time those memories become less upsetting. So, what you want probably is to remember what happened but not to get upset every time you remember it."

Sleep scientists believe these kinds of anxiety could be treated by triggering the troubling memories while a person slumbers.

This triggering of memory reactivation can be done by presenting stimuli that are linked to the target memories during sleep.

Prof Lewis said: "So if we trigger emotional memories to reactivate during REM sleep, then we find that [people] rate the upsetting memories as much-less upsetting than they did before sleeping.

"It's early days on this but we're pretty excited about it," said Prof Lewis.

The university is currently conducting experiments using sleep labs at CUBRIC.

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