A Slate report explores the issue of chronic insomnia and how the brains of those with the condition are different than individuals with no sleeping difficulties.
Fortunately, the nighttime affliction is becoming steadily less mysterious—at least from the perspective of neuroscience. While insomniacs toss and turn, researchers are finally starting to understand this elusive disease. As it turns out, chronic insomnia may be more hard-wired into our brains than we had thought, and indicative of larger differences that separate the brains of the sleepless from those who so effortlessly enter the land of dreams.
In 2014, Rachel Salas, director of ambulatory sleep services at Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, tested how quickly insomniac patients could learn a simple motor task. Given that their brains were depleted of fuel, she reasoned, they’d probably do worse. Instead, they did far better. “Their brains were more plastic, more adaptive,” Salas says. It wasn’t the sleep deprivation: It was that their brains simply processed information faster, whether or not they had gotten enough sleep. In fact, other studies have found that insomniacs have heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher overall brain metabolism, whether they were sleeping or awake.
“It’s like a light switch that’s always on, a car that’s always running” is how Salas describes the insomniac brain. Her findings add to the mounting evidence that insomnia is not just something that happens at night—the insomniac brain exists in a constant state of hyperarousal.