Background

Insufficient sleep and social stress are associated with weight gain and obesity in adolescence. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research has pointed to altered engagement of anxiety- and stress-related neural pathways as an explanation for overeating when under social stress. The purpose of this study is to explore the effects of sleep restriction on adolescents’ social threat-related neural responding.

Methods

51 adolescent females (ages 12-18; M age = 15.86, SD = 1.04) with overweight/obesity (M BMI% = 95.19, SD = 4.24) completed a simulated chatroom task, including assigning value to fictional peers then receiving feedback regarding whether the peer wanted to chat with them while an fMRI scan was conducted. Participants were randomly assigned to either one night of sleep deprivation or nine hours of sleep the night before the fMRI scan.

Results

We found interactions between sleep condition and peer feedback type associated with neural activation in several regions of interest. Differing levels of neural activity were found between positive feedback from high value peers and negative feedback from low value peers in the superior temporal gyrus and the posterior cingulate. Additionally, differences in negative feedback from high value peers and positive feedback from low value peers were found in the intraparietal sulcus.

Conclusions

Findings from this study suggest that sleep deprivation produces more pronounced emotion-related neural activation subsequent to social stressors in overweight/obese adolescents such that sleep deprived adolescents show greater responsivity to social threat and greater salience of social acceptance when sleep deprived. These findings illustrate the importance of addressing sleep behaviors in treatment of adolescents with overweight and obesity. Future research aims include exploring neural correlates of eating behaviors when sleep deprived or socially stressed and exploring whether interventions to improve sleep mitigate these risks.