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While it is certain that disrupted sleep affects our later days, the evidence for the changes in cognition and behavior that occur during nocturnal awakening is still unclear. On this basis, the researchers propose a hypothesis to highlight the problems caused and contribute to other research on the subject.
The hypothesis of American researchers, dubbed “Mind After Midnight”, suggests that when we are awake during the “night” phase of the biological circadian rhythm (in most people after midnight), neurophysiological changes occur in the brain that contribute to dysregulation of behavior and mental disorders.
Indeed, some researchers have previously shown that circadian rhythms affect human physiology and behavior. These rhythms promote wakefulness and cognition during the day, while reducing cortical activity during sleep at night. Not surprisingly, disrupted sleep increases the risk of developing and worsening mental illness, and this risk may be partly related to nocturnal awakenings (during “circadian night”). During biological night, cognition and mood regulation are impaired, probably due to the influence of circadian rhythms.
Impulsive and maladaptive behavior increased at night
“Millions of people are awake in the middle of the night and there is pretty strong evidence that their brains don’t work as well as they do during the day,” co-author, neuroscientist Elizabeth Clerman, said in a statement. , author of the study. According to the researchers, nocturnal changes contribute to negative emotions, as well as an increase in impulsive and inappropriate behavior. Data on four of these behaviors were examined: suicide/self-harm, violent crime, substance use, and eating behavior.
Previous research has shown that the risks associated with these behaviors increase at night. “For example, a previously abstinent heroin user who successfully manages cravings during the day may experience stronger cravings and less resistance at night,” the authors report. “The lure of heroin use becomes more desirable and satisfying than the potential costs, and a single impulsive decision leads to a relapse.” In 2020, a study conducted at a controlled drug use center in Brazil found that the risk of an opioid overdose at night is 4.7 times higher.
Another example is the case of a college student who suffers from insomnia, which causes him to reflect on his previous negative relationship experiences. As he accumulates sleepless nights, he may experience feelings of despair and helplessness, which may lead him to commit suicide. Some studies report that the risk of suicide between midnight and 6 am is three times higher than at any other time of the day.
Some of these behaviors can simply be explained by lack of sleep, but nocturnal neurological changes associated with the circadian rhythm are likely involved. In addition to the increased negative impact at night, increased dopamine production at this time can alter the reward system and increase the likelihood of risky behavior.
This biased interpretation of the information is then passed on to the decision-making parts of the brain that normally seek to control negative emotional distractions and focus on goal-directed behavior.
Confirm the hypothesis to help those affected
However, the researchers’ hypothesis builds on previous research and aims to draw attention to future empirical testing. “To test the mind after midnight hypothesis, data must be collected during the biological night (including using protocols that do not cause sleep loss),” the authors write. Future work may also help distinguish the effects of prolonged wakefulness from those of abrupt nocturnal awakening, as well as the distinction between sleep loss and circadian processes.
The results of this study could have serious implications for people who work night shifts, including healthcare workers and military personnel. It will also help those affected sleep through the night, thereby reducing their exposure to high-risk periods due to behavioral dysregulation.