A Schizophrenic’s Sleep:

How might sleep be impacting on the disease? Does manipulating sleep hold potential for a possible new therapy?

Sleep is vital for controlling memory and emotional processing. We understand this first hand if we have ever been sleep deprived, typically showing reduced mood and memory.

Sleep deficits are seen in a variety of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia. Once sleep was just thought to be a symptom, researchers now propose that sleep deficits may be contributing to the disorders.



Schizophrenia is a psychiatric disease affecting approximately 0.7% of the population. Those who develop the disorder experience symptoms leading to a lifetime of impairment and disability.

Image via flickr

We often associate schizophrenia symptoms with hallucinations and delusions, however, apathy, lack of pleasure, and poor cognitive function are also devastating symptoms of the disease.

Many drugs used to treat schizophrenia only improve the hallucinations and delusions. Some drugs even make cognitive impairments worse.

Insight into the sleep deficits seen in schizophrenia may offer an alternative treatment path as sleep is important for cognition and emotional regulation.



During sleep, our brains transition though multiple cycles of highly specific activity. The various types of brain activity have been shown to be important for; memory function, immune health, emotion and even removing toxic brain waste that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Some types of activity are impaired in people with schizophrenia.

A series of wires placed on the scalp, called an electroencephalogram (EEG), allows the visualisation of the brains electrical activity enabling scientists to study brain activity.

This is a picture of me (obviously really busy at work) with electrodes on my face. The electrodes should be all over the scalp as well and allow the observation of changes in electrical activity.

Sleep spindles are fast bursts of brain activity that last less than a second playing an integral role the memory consolidation process that takes place during sleep.

Scientists have linked reduced sleep spindle activity with cognitive deficits common to schizophrenia. This reduced sleep spindle activity in schizophrenics predates the symptoms which means that it may be a contributing factor to onset and manifestations of the disease.


Highlighted are sleep spindles taken from a human EEG. That is the type of brain activity that is associated with enhanced memory function


Is there anything we can do to enhance sleep spindles?

Interestingly, there are many commonly used sleeping tablets that increase sleep spindle activity. One that you may know is Zolpidem, commonly known as Ambien.

Eszopiclone is a little less commonly used, but is still in the same drug family. Scientists have found that Eszopiclone increases sleep spindle activity in schizophrenics and increases in sleep spindle activity enhance memory.

This supports the idea that spindle deficits in schizophrenia may be responsible for cognitive deficits seen in schizophrenia.

Manipulating sleep spindle activity in schizophrenia represents a possible new therapy for the disorder.


What about us?

If sleep spindles enhance memory, why don’t we all take spindle enhancing sleeping tablets and acquire super brains?

While increasing sleep spindles may be good, sleeping tablets also reduce other types of important brain activity. Further research must be done to see if this impact on schizophrenics.

If you are a good sleeper, be thankful! There are many people in the world who aren’t and it is becoming more apparent that it affects them more than they think.