Mass General Investigators Dig Deeper into the Science of Sleep

Woman with insomnia

Here’s a brief look at three recent studies from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital that look at the connections between sleep and health.

Study shows processes through which a lack of sleep contributes to cardiovascular disease

Getting enough sleep is key to good health, and studies have shown that insufficient sleep increases the risk of serious problems, including cardiovascular disease.

In a recent study published in Nature, a team led by Filip Swirski, PhD, identified how that process works on a molecular and biological level.

The team conducted a study using two sets of mice that were genetically programmed to develop arteriosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to a narrowing and hardening of the blood vessels and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Mice in the study set experienced repeated interruptions to their sleep similar to someone who wakes frequently due to noise or discomfort, while those in the control had uninterrupted sleep.

The researchers found that the sleep-deprived mice developed larger arterial plaques and had higher levels of two types of immune cells that are known to contribute to arteriosclerosis.

Dr. Swirski is an investigator at the Center for Systems Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital and a Patricia and Scott Eston MGH Research Scholar 2016-2021.


Dreams of relapse are common in individuals recovering from substance use disorder

If you’re in recovery from a substance use disorder and have anxiety-provoking dreams about relapsing, you’re not alone. 

Recovery from every kind of substance use disorder – alcohol, heroin, cocaine, cannabis – has been characterized by dreams that follow a common pattern.

In the dream, the person takes a drink or ingests their primary substance. They experience disbelief and are overcome with fear, guilt and remorse until they wake up relieved to realize it was only a dream.

In a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, a research team led by John Kelly, PhD, recently found that individuals who have a more significant clinical history of substance use disorder are more likely to have these dreams of relapse, but the dreams will decrease over time as recovery continues.

“The association between the decreasing frequency of these dreams and the length of time in recovery suggests that, as the body and mind gradually adapt to abstinence and a new lifestyle, psychological angst about relapse diminishes,” Kelly says.

“These relapse dreams may be indicative of the healing process and brain-mind stabilization that occurs with time in recovery.”

Dr. Kelly is the founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.


Research study helps to build a better understanding of the genetic links to insomnia

Insomnia affects around 10 to 20 percent of the population, and twin and family studies have suggested that about a third of the risk of insomnia is inherited.

A study led by investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the University of Exeter Medical School has identified 76 new gene regions associated with sleep duration. The study by a team that recently reported finding gene sites associated with insomnia risk and chronotype– the tendency to be an early riser or a ‘night owl’ – has been published in Nature Communications.

The current study, the largest of its kind to address sleep duration, analyzed genetic data from more than 446,000 participants in the U.K. Biobank who self-reported the amount of sleep they typically received.

To confirm the accuracy of findings based on self-reported sleep duration, the researchers tested the 78 duration-associated variants in a subgroup of participants who had worn motion-detecting devices (such as mobile fitness trackers) for up to a week.

“While we spend about a third of our life asleep, we have little knowledge of the specific genes and pathways that regulate the amount of sleep people get,” says Hassan Saeed Dashti, PhD, RD, of the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine, co-lead author of the report.

“Our study suggests that many of the genes important for sleep in animal models may also influence sleep in humans and opens the door to better understanding of the function and regulation of sleep.”


About the Mass General Research Institute
Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States. Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to develop innovative new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
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