Sleepless nights and disrupted body clocks could be linked to mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to research by Professor Russell Foster from the University of Oxford.

People with schizophrenia often complain about sleeping difficulties. It has long been thought that their poor sleep patterns stem from unemployment and the resulting tendency to wake up later than the norm, or else are side effects of anti-psychotic drugs. But Professor Foster and his team have found that it’s not down to medication or lifestyle, but in fact due to fundamentals of their physiology.

Foster said: “The appalling sleep-wake in schizophrenia is independent of medication and social constraints. There is something fundamentally wrong with the body clock of patients with schizophrenia.”

Foster’s work suggests that the neural mechanisms of the brain behind mental health and normal sleep overlap and share brain circuits, so if your sleep is disrupted, so is your mental health. Studies of schizophrenia patients have found profound disruptions in their sleep patterns, with half also having irregular body clocks that are out of sync with the pattern of night and day.

Genetic schizophrenia trigger
Foster’s team also identified a genetic mutation that triggers schizophrenia-like symptoms in mice, which also appears to disrupt their circadian rhythm or body clock. He said: “We looked at a gene linked with schizophrenia in humans. When mutated, it completely smashes the mouse sleep-wake cycle, just like the patients we observe with schizophrenia. Here we have direct evidence of a genuine mechanistic overlap between the neural circuits that give rise to normal mental health and the neural circuits that give rise to normal sleep.”

The findings offer the potential to identify sleep disruptions early on and predict the arrival of mental illness. Sleep disruption may even be causing the onset of conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place this month (13-19 May 2013) and is highlighting research in the field of mental illness, and challenging stigmas. Eva Cyhlarova, Head of Research at The Mental Health Foundation, says: “Poor sleep can lead to mental health problems, and mental health problems can lead to poor sleep. People with severe and enduring mental health problems (such as schizophrenia) often experience insomnia and can find themselves in a downward spiral of sleeplessness and ill-health, from which some never fully recover. It is therefore crucial that professionals are aware of this issue and help people deal with the sleep problems, as well as managing their mental health.”