Feature Archive

Staying Up to Beat the Blues

Can sleep deprivation temporarily ease depression?

WebMD Feature

May 8, 2000 -- Nearly 30 years have passed since Anna Wirz-Justice, MD, first prescribed a night without sleep for a severely depressed 80-year-old woman. "She used to just sit around all day, feeling suicidal," says the Swiss neurobiologist. "She hardly spoke or moved.''

The remedy worked.

By the next morning, the elderly woman "was talking and moving around as if she were actually another person," Wirz-Justice says. "She told me that at about two or three in the morning, she felt like a black cloud had been lifted from her shoulders."

Was Wirz-Justice on to something? She and other researchers thought so -- at first. There is no denying that sleep deprivation temporarily eases depression. Up to 60% of depressed people will show a 30% improvement after just one night awake, according to a review article published in the January 1990 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. People who feel the most depressed in the morning and improve later in the day seem to benefit the most from a night without sleep.

But there was a problem: Patients tended to relapse into depression as soon as they did get a good night's sleep. Moreover, habitual sleep deprivation may be linked to long-term health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes. The challenge then became to find a way of relieving depression by tinkering with sleep-wake cycles.