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Sleep deprivation for depression: Philadelphia Inquirer gives readers needed context on study limitations


4 Star

Strange but true: Sleep deprivation can help depression. Penn scientists want to know why

Our Review Summary

The story reports on a University of Pennsylvania research study that probed 66 other studies, in what is known as a meta-analysis. Researchers examined how sleep deprivation — anything from three to four hours of sleep followed by 20 to 21 hours awake to no sleep for 36 straight hours — could ease depression symptoms. In studies they probed, 45 percent to 50 percent of patients reported feeling less depressed.

But the benefit does not last long, and the story wisely gives readers this context. This is something we wished had been emphasized in the news release on this study, which we also reviewed.


Why This Matters

Depression is a major cause of disability in the US and around the world, with estimates that 16.1 million adults in the US had an episode in 2015, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The most common treatment for depression is drugs, antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and have side effects. This study of other studies was partly trying to narrow the focus on when sleep deprivation works in order to help researchers launch new studies to try to understand the mechanisms of this benefit. The story helps readers understand this: “He’s [researcher] not hoping to use sleep deprivation as a treatment but thinks that pinpointing what it does to the brain will help doctors develop other, more sustained treatments.”


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not mention costs. One may assume there is no cost to sleep deprivation but the deprivation in the studies was mostly monitored in inpatient facilities, which can be expensive.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story just squeaks by on this, but we want to especially compliment the story for pointing out that the benefits are short-lived. While the story does not use a lot of numeric quantification, it does provide important context for how to view the study results.

Here’s what it says about benefits: “Their work confirmed that sleep deprivation — anything from three to four hours of sleep followed by 20 to 21 hours awake to no sleep for 36 straight hours — is indeed a powerful antidote to depression. In the 66 studies they analyzed, 45 percent to 50 percent reported feeling less depressed.”

But this is the part that puts a context around that for readers:

“That sounds great, but there’s a huge problem: For more than 80 percent of patients, the antidepressant effects are lost as soon as they get a good night’s rest. Repeated exposure to sleep deprivation has had mixed results.”

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not include the potential harms of sleep deprivation, which are extensive.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The story explains that the study was a meta-analysis of other studies, and it points out important limitations to help readers understand that quality of the evidence.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


There was no disease mongering, and we thought the story did a good job of explaining the mysteries that still surround sleep’s relationship to mood. While sleep deprivation seems to create a temporary lifting of depression, it is also true that insomnia is a frequent symptom of depression. The story includes contradictions that remain to be resolved for researchers.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story did not include any independent sources.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story briefly hints at the other common treatments: drugs (notably antidepressants) and talk therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story explains it is not widely available as a therapeutic in clinics.

“Experts theorize that sleep deprivation may reset the circadian clock. But it is rarely used for treatment because it wears off so fast.

“I know of about three clinics worldwide that routinely use it,” Gehrman said. There are some studies showing that it can be helpful when combined with light or antidepressant medication treatment.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story explains that the study was novel primarily because of the meta-analysis approach.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not rely on the news release, and demonstrates independent reporting by adding details and quotes that were not part of the release.


Total Score: 7 of 10 Satisfactory


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