Key Takeaways

  • A new study by led by Mass General researchers has identified a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in chronic pain associated with sleep loss
  • In lab models, this neurotransmitter—an endocannabinoid called N-arachidonoyl dopamine—decreased in a particular brain region after chronic sleep disruption
  • Administering this neurotransmitter to the brain reduced the pain caused by sleep loss

BOSTON – People often experience headaches and body pain after a lack of sleep, but the mechanisms behind this phenomenon are unclear. A new study led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a founding member of Mass General Brigham (MGB) and published in Nature Communications reveals that a certain chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, plays a major role.

Through experiments conducted in mice, the researchers found that the heightened pain sensitivity than can result from chronic sleep disruption (CSD)—or CSD-induced hyperalgesia—involved signaling from a part of a brain known as the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN).

Analyses of metabolites showed that the level of N-arachidonoyl dopamine (NADA), a type of neurotransmitter called an endocannabinoid, decreased in the TRN as a result of sleep deprivation.

Activity of the cannabinoid receptor 1, which is involved in controlling pain perception, also decreased in the thalamic reticular nucleus after CSD.

Administering NADA to the TRN reduced CSD-induced hyperalgesia in mice.

This beneficial effect of administered NADA could be countered by blocking the cannabinoid receptor 1, suggesting that both the receptor and NADA play a role in pain sensitivity due to sleep deprivation.

“We provide a mechanism as to how sleep disruption leads to exaggerated pain, suggesting that harnessing the endocannabinoid system might break the vicious cycle between pain and sleep loss,” says co–senior author Shiqian Shen, MD, the clinical director of MGH’s Tele Pain Program.

Additional authors include Weihua Ding, Liuyue Yang, Eleanor Shi, Bowon Kim, Sarah Low, Kun Hu, Lei Gao, Ping Chen, Wei Ding, David Borsook, Andrew Luo, Jee Hyun Choi, Changning Wang, Oluwaseun Akeju, Jun Yang, Chongzhao Ran, Kristin L. Schreiber, Jianren Mao, Qian Chen, and co–senior author Guoping Feng (MIT).


About the Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In July 2022, Mass General was named #8 in the U.S. News & World Report list of "America’s Best Hospitals." MGH is a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system.