Sleepless nights and disrupted body clocks are frequently the result of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to research from the University of Oxford.

It has long been thought that the poor sleep patterns of people with schizophrenia are side effects of anti-psychotic drugs but Professor Russell Foster and his team have found that it’s due to fundamentals of their physiology rather than medication.

Overlapping neural mechanisms
The findings of the study, released as part of Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May), suggest that the neural mechanisms of the brain behind mental health and normal sleep overlap and share brain circuits.

Prof Foster explained: “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.”

Smashes the sleep-wake cycle
The University of Oxford team also identified a genetic mutation that triggers schizophrenia-like symptoms in mice and disrupts their circadian rhythm, or body clock.

"We looked at a gene linked with schizophrenia in humans," Prof Foster continued. "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"”

Listen to Prof Foster discuss circadian rhythms and mental illness below:

Predict onset of mental illness
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.

Prof Foster concluded: “We’ve been looking at young people at high risk of developing bipolar. They are already showing an abnormal sleep-wake pattern before any clinical diagnosis.

“Part of the reason patients with mental illness are so socially isolated is because they sleep during the day and are awake at night. If we can correct that, it may help social integration, and if we can correct some of the sleep-wake problems we may have a genuine and lasting effect on the patient’s mental health.”

Prof Foster will be delivering The Physiological Society's free Annual Public Lecture on body clocks at the IUPS Congress in Birmingham in July 2013.