Researchers Identify Brain Changes in Alcohol-Related Sleep Disturbances

Chronic alcohol exposure can lead to disruptions in the sleep cycle.

Drinking too much can make you “pass out” or ease into sleep faster, but we all know the truth: Drunk sleep is the worst.

Now, researchers are looking at how chronic exposure to alcohol disrupts sleep and how it affects your brain. Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) researchers published a review article online in the journal, Behavioral Brain Research, which provides insight into the disruptions in the sleep cycle that happen in the brain as a result of chronic alcohol exposure.

Prior studies note that people who suffer from alcohol-related disorders can have severely disrupted sleep—frequently. This can occur, according to researchers, in people who are actively drinking, going through withdrawal, or even when abstaining.

“Sleep-wake disturbances can last for months, or even years, after someone stops drinking, which indicates that chronic alcohol abuse could cause long-term negative effects on sleep,” said the article’s senior author, Subimal Datta, professor of psychiatry and neurology at BUSM.

According to the article:

The researchers hypothesize that chronic alcohol use leads to dysfunction of cholinergic cells (cells that synthesize neurotransmitter acetylcholine) in an area of the brain stem called the pedunculopontine tegmentum, which is involved in regulating many aspects of sleep. As a result of the prolonged alcohol exposure, the activity of chemicals that excite neurons in the brain increases while simultaneously decreasing the activity of a chemical that inhibits this neuron activity. This results in the over-activity of brain chemicals in the brain and causes a disruption in the normal sleep cycle.

The next step in the research is to identify exactly what is leading to these brain changes and work on creating specific medications that can help alcohol-related sleep disorders.

“Identifying the specific mechanisms that lead to change in brain activity will allow us to develop targeted medications, which could help treat people suffering from sleep issues related to alcohol use disorders,” Datta says.