Brain scans made using a sophisticated MRI technique have shown the effects of sleepless nights on people with insomnia, revealing abnormalities in the white matter tracts of their brain.

The availability of neuroimaging methods have paved the way for research and disease detection to go a notch higher and identify bodily changes associated with insomnia. Although studies have shown physiological deviations such as impaired metabolism and connectivity problems inside the brain, brain scans of people with insomnia still produce inconsistent findings.

With the new technique used in the study, however, researcher Shumei Li says they were able to see the microstructure of the white matter tracts. This will hopefully produce a more solid theory about the brain processes of people with insomnia.

White matter tracts are clumps of nerve cells that interlink one part of the brain to another. If these tracts are damaged, the communication between different brain areas becomes interrupted.

Decoding The Link

The research involved 23 participants diagnosed with primary insomnia and 30 healthy individuals.

The researchers looked at the subjects' mental states and sleeping patterns via different questionnaires about sleep quality, insomnia severity and depression. Depression and insomnia are associated with each other, with a study showing how cognitive behavioral therapy can ease the symptoms of both conditions.

For the MRI scan, the authors used a special method termed as diffusion tensor imaging, which allowed the scientists to study the pattern of the movement of water along the white matter tracts to check for damage and assess tract integrity.

The findings of the investigations show that patients with insomnia had notably less white matter integrity than the healthy controls. This was noted specifically in numerous areas in the right side of the brain, as well as in the thalamus, which facilitates alertness, consciousness and sleep.

The reason for the weakened white matter tracts may be the loss of myelin, which is the outer coating that protects nerve fibers.

Scientists also noted abnormalities in the thalamus, which they were able to associate with how long the patients have been experiencing insomnia and their scores on the self-rating depression questionnaire.

Experts view the role of the thalamus in insomnia as vital because this part of the brain contains essential components of humans' biological clock.

More investigations and a larger sample size are needed to solidify the link between insomnia and white matter tract integrity.

More About Insomnia

Primary insomnia is characterized by difficulty getting or staying asleep for a minimum duration of one month, which means the condition may last longer. The disorder is linked with suffering from fatigue during the day, experiencing mood disruption and having trouble concentrating, among other cognitive functions. Ultimately, insomnia may also result in depression and anxiety.

"Insomnia is a remarkably prevalent disorder," says Li. However, she adds that the root causes as well as their resulting outcomes persist to be baffling.

The study was published in the journal Radiology on April 5.

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