We’re often told that the brain is asleep and it doesn’t need to be.
But a new study suggests the opposite may be true.
The study, led by Dr Simon Baron-Cohen from the University of Cambridge, analysed how the brain processes information and found it is in a state of hypoactive sleep.
This means the brain can only process information when it is actively awake.
The research was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Dr Baron-Cox said: “We’ve known that the sleep-wake cycle is highly variable, but this study showed that this variability is more significant in the wake-sleep cycle.”
We know that we need to sleep for a certain amount of time to achieve sleep, but the amount of sleep required depends on a number of factors, such as the amount and the duration of activity in the day, and the level of activity we experience during the day.
“The way the brain works, the amount we need, the activity level we experience is dependent on the state of sleep and wakefulness.”
“This is not a problem for a healthy person, who should be asleep within a few hours of waking up.”
Dr Baron -Cox explained that while we might think that a person is in the middle of the night, this isn’t necessarily the case.
“It’s not really a case of the person being asleep but instead it’s more like a mixture of different states,” he said.
“For example, you could be asleep in a very relaxed state of mind, but then you wake up in the morning and you’re in a different state of consciousness.”
Dr Simon Baron -Cohen is now a researcher at the University’s Department of Neurology.
He said the research had implications for the way people manage stress, depression and anxiety, and that the new findings might even apply to other mental health disorders.
“Our understanding is that there are several different ways that stress and depression are triggered by our brains,” Dr Baron -COhen said.
“One of them is a state called ‘hypervigilance’.”
So a person with anxiety who has a sleep disturbance or an elevated alertness to a stressor might wake up feeling that their anxiety is getting worse, that their depression is getting bigger, that they’re anxious about their job or the way they look.
“In this way, our sleep-restrictive state is an important mechanism that we can think about in terms of the stress-relief process.”
Dr Saman Nair, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said it was a fascinating study.
“Sleep deprivation is associated with a number different psychological disorders,” she said.”[But] this research shows that, in some cases, sleep is the most important factor that determines which psychological disorders we may be diagnosed with.”
Dr Nair said that it was important to remember that the only way to sleep is to do so without medication.
“A person who is awake is likely to have more sleep than a person who’s asleep.
That’s why a person needs to be alert to the fact that they are waking up,” she told ABC Radio Perth.”
And that’s why it’s important to try to get as much sleep as you can, especially in the early hours of the morning.”
Dr David Jager, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Australia, said that while it was not known exactly what caused the sleep changes, it was known that hypoactivity was linked to stress.
“If you have a lot of stress or anxiety, you’re going to be hyperactive, and this means your brain is going to react in a way that may affect how your body processes and processes information,” he told ABC Perth.
Dr Jager said it would be important to investigate how this activity might influence the development of chronic stress and anxiety disorders.