It can be exhausting trying to fall asleep sometimes. No matter how much you try, insomnia can keep you awake during all hours of the night. While the condition may seem like a minor frustration, it could be an underlying sign of something worse. A recent study was performed by the Department of Medical Imaging, Guangdong No. 2 Provincial People’s Hospital, Guangzhou, China.  The study found a link between insomnia and damage to the brain’s communications networks.

The Troubling Case of Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep disorder, where patients often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night. Most often it is associated with daytime fatigue, mood disruptions and cognitive impairment. The condition can be a sign or symptom of several disorders, including depression, pain, or obstructive sleep apnea.

Damage to the Brain’s Communication Network

“Insomnia is a remarkably prevalent disorder,” said researcher Shumei Li, M.S., from the Department of Medical Imaging. He goes on to mention that it is difficult to nail down the key to what causes the disorder.

Looking for answers to this challenging question, Dr. Li’s team investigated the white matter tracts in insomnia patients.  He said, “White matter tracts are bundles of axons—or long fibers of nerve cells—that connect one part of the brain to another. If white matter tracts are impaired, communication between brain regions is disrupted.”

Researchers tested 23 patients with insomnia and 30 healthy patients without the disorder, measuring mental status and sleep patterns. Using a MRI with a specialized technique called diffusion tensor imaging, the researchers were able to monitor the patients’ brains and the pattern of water movement along the white matter tracts. With the goal of identifying a loss of tract integrity, scientist found telling results.

Insomnia patients had considerably reduced integrity of the white matter in several right-brain regions and the thalamus when compared to the patients without the disorder. These areas of the brain control consciousness, sleep and alertness.  “These impaired white matter tracts are mainly involved in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness, cognitive function and sensorimotor function,” Dr. Li said.

More research needs to be done to find a definitive relationship between insomnia and the brain’s functions. However, you may want to consult your physician if you are having trouble sleeping.  Sleep apnea is common among millions of Americans and also one of the causes of insomnia. Your doctor might be able to help you find a solution before the problem becomes worse.