Schizophrenia is a serious and at times debilitating health condition affecting millions of individuals around the world. At the moment there is no cure for the condition, and treatment is often limited. However, a new review linking a sleep abnormality with the mental health illness may open the door for new, more effective treatment options.

According to the study, researchers have long been aware of the link between sleep disturbances and schizophrenia, but it was previously not clear if these disturbances were a consequence of the illness. Now, it’s apparent that these sleep disturbances — known as reduced spindle activity, exist before the onset of the illness and are therefore linked to the genetic factors associated with schizophrenia. In healthy people, the sleep medication zolpidem increased sleep spindle activity, and although this has not yet been attempted in individuals with schizophrenia, the team believe their findings suggest this medication is a possible treatment.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that sleep not only controls memory and emotional processing in all of us, but that deficits in sleep probably contribute to a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, ADHD, bipolar disorder, PTSD and depression,” study author Robert Stickgold said in a recent statement. “Now we can begin tracing it all the way from the genes to the disorders themselves.”

The new finding is based on a review of much research regarding spindle activity. Spindles are bursts of brain activity that occur during REM sleep and help create memories. Higher sleep spindle activity correlates with enhanced sleep-dependent memory processing and higher IQ.

Other new research on schizophrenia has helped to reveal certain genes believed to be directly linked to the disease's onset. For example, a study published earlier this year used blood samples from 1,714 individuals to help pinpoint which genes are connected with the disorder by combining information about the genetic sequences with measures of gene regulation in patients suffering from schizophrenia. In addition to the research on schizophrenia and sleep disturbances, it's hoped that this finding will one day lead to better treatment options for the condition.

Source: Manoach DA, Pan JQ, Purcell SM, Stickhold R. Reduced Sleep Spindles in Schizophrenia: A Treatable Endophenotype That Links Risk Genes to Impaired Cognition? Biological Psychology. 2016

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