Sleep deprivation affects emotion regulation but not processing

Study data published in PLoS One describe the possible effects of sleep deprivation on emotion regulation. In a cohort of healthy adults exposed to sleep deprivation, processing and memory remained uninhibited, but regulation of negative emotions experienced a decrease.

This study was conducted in a controlled laboratory setting at Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center. Healthy adults spent 4 days in the lab undergoing a battery of tests that assessed memory, cognition, and emotion regulation.

After a night of monitored sleep and laboratory acclimation, patients were randomized in a 2:1 ratio to either a total sleep deprived condition or a rested control condition. During night 2, patients in the sleep deprived condition were kept awake while patients in the control condition were given a 10 hour sleep window. At the end of Day 3, all patients were given a 10 hour bed. The subjects left the laboratory in the afternoon of day 4.

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Each day, patients regularly completed the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the Affective Psychomotor Vigilance Test, which measures mood or the ability to sustain attention. An emotion regulation task was also performed, in which patients were instructed to either note or decrease their emotional response to an immediate image.

Finally, patients completed affective categorization tasks in which they were asked to describe the emotions present in a prompt image. Linear mixed-effects models were used to capture the effect of study conditions on emotion regulation and affective processing.

A total of 60 adults were randomized: 40 to the sleep deprived state and 20 to the resting state. The patients’ ages ranged from 22 to 37 years and 50% were women.

A significant effect of the study condition was observed with a positive effect on the PANAS, with the sleep deprived group experiencing a significant decrease in positive affect scores over the study period (p<0.001). The same effect was not observed in patients in the rested state. Results on the affective categorization task did not differ significantly between study groups (P=0.789), suggesting that sleep deprivation did not impair patients' ability to characterize emotional imagery.

In addition, sleep deprivation did not appear to affect performance on attentional or working memory tasks. However, a significant main effect of study condition on emotion regulation task results was observed. In particular, patients in the deprived state rated images more negatively during the second (post-deprivation) regulation task than during the first task (P < 0.001). This finding suggests that sleep deprivation may impair the ability to regulate responses to negative prompts. Rested patients did not show this effect.

This data sheds light on the effects of sleep deprivation on specific emotional processes. While patients in both states remained able to process and categorize emotional prompts, emotion regulation was impaired by sleep deprivation. Further research is needed to better explore the relationship between affective processing and emotion regulation.

“[I]In contrast to previous work, we found that sleep-deprived individuals do not differ significantly from their well-rested peers when it comes to noticing, identifying, updating, and maintaining affective information, indicating that the bottom-up Flow of affective information is not affected [total sleep deprivation]’ the investigators wrote.

“In summary, our evidence suggests that changes in emotional processing associated with sleep loss are unlikely to be due to changes in the bottom-up components of affective processing.”


Stenson AR, Kurinec CA, Hinson JM, Whitney P, Van Dongen HPA. Total sleep deprivation reduces the top-down regulation of emotions without altering the bottom-up processing of emotions. Plus one. Published online September 2, 2021. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256983

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor

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