Tired but wide awake? Blame cytokines

EMORY (US)—Cytokines—products of the immune system—may be the culprits that cause insomnia, a new study finds.

“Sleep disturbances are debilitating and often plague patients who have medical and psychiatric illnesses, exacerbating their conditions,” says Andrew Miller, the William P. Timmie Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University, and senior author and principal investigator of the study.

“Our data suggests that cytokines may provide a link between disorders associated with chronic activation of the immune system, including medical and/or psychiatric illnesses and insomnia, which in turn is associated with fatigue and other problems,” says Miller.

The study was published May 25 in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Cytokines are fundamental signaling molecules of the immune system that allow communication of immune cells with each other as well as communication with other tissues, including the brain.

Study participants were exposed to standardized doses of the cytokine interferon (IFN)-alpha for the treatment of hepatitis C where it activates the immune system to fight the virus.

During the three months the individuals were exposed to IFN-alpha, they showed marked deterioration of their sleep patterns. They woke up repeatedly during the night and spent much less time in the restorative, deep stages of sleep.

During the day, these individuals were extremely fatigued. However, even when offered a nap, they still couldn’t sleep.

The investigators believe the findings may hold promise for novel treatments of insomnia that target the effects of cytokines on sleep. The team is currently conducting a follow-up study to determine if blocking cytokines improves sleep in depressed patients.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

More news from Emory University: www.emory.edu/home/news/

chat3 Comments


  1. Mediven Support Stockings

    Very interesting article. I love reading back new findings especially ones having to do with psychiatry and behavioral studies. I look forward to reading more on this topic and seeing what types of treatment result from these recent findings.

  2. William J Rowe M.D. FBIS

    Cytokine elevations may be the link between ithe reduced sleep patterns of those in space, with the average duration of sleep in microgravity about 6 hours, and the excessive release of cytokines with obesity. And yet in space there is anorexia and weight loss. In my list of articles on my website ((www.femsinspace.com ) note my letter to editor published in SPACEFLIGHT magazine — for the layman: Obesity or Spaceflight the heart can’t see the difference, 2005.

    William J. Rowe M.D. Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society

  3. Jill

    It seems that this study and the study on lack of exposure to microorganisms, inflamation and depression, both at Emory, are related. Interesting.

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