Insomnia Tied to Lack of Brain Chemical

by Aalok Mehta

December 24, 2008

Scientists have identified the first known brain chemical abnormality associated with insomnia: a substantial reduction in levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Otherwise healthy people with insomnia have, on average, 25 to 30 percent less GABA in their brains than do normal sleepers, according to the new study, which appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Sleep.

Scientists have long suspected a link between GABA and insomnia. The neurotransmitter is known to help brain regions shut down by reducing electrical activity, and several common sleeping pills work by helping nerve receptors link to the chemical more efficiently. But the new study is the first to quantify GABA levels in the brains of insomniacs.

Because the GABA measurements were made during the day, the findings also lend further credence to the theory that insomnia is a “state of hyperarousal” extending throughout the waking hours rather than just a nighttime disease, the study authors wrote.

“The results suggest that insomnia is not just a sleep problem,” says principal investigator John Winkelman, a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital, which is an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. “It’s a 24-hour-a-day problem.”

Mysterious disease

In many ways, insomnia remains largely a mystery to the medical community. “It’s the most common sleep disorder but the most poorly understood,” says Jerome Siegel, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Part of the difficulty is that most people with insomnia also have other medical or psychiatric conditions, making it difficult to isolate the exact effects and possible causes of each one.

To get around this problem, Winkelman and his colleagues looked at 16 people with primary insomnia—that is, people free from any other known medical or sleeping conditions. About one-quarter of chronic insomniacs fall into this category.

Researchers collected data on the sleeping habits of the study participants using electroencephalography (EEG) and other monitoring devices. To measure GABA levels noninvasively, the scientists used a novel form of magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which uses magnetic resonance imaging to investigate brain tissue as well as structure. The team averaged GABA signals from the basal ganglia, thalamus and parts of the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes.

In addition to finding lower levels of GABA overall, Winkelman says, “one of the things that encouraged us we were on the right track was that in each of these sleep studies, the amount of wake time during the night was inversely correlated—highly—with GABA levels.”

Despite the promising results from those tests, Winkelman says much work remains to clarify the link between GABA levels and insomnia. “It could be that insomnia produces low GABA, or low GABA produces insomnia, or hyperarousal causes both,” he says. “We just don’t know.”

More details needed

Siegel, who has studied GABA release during sleep but was not involved with this study, echoed Winkelman’s caveat but was impressed by the findings and techniques used.

“This is sophisticated, elegant, cutting-edge work,” he says. “It’s one of the first, if not the first, to use this technique. I expect to see a lot more people using the technique they’re using.

“People with insomnia are not sleepy all the time,” he says. “People with chronic insomnia are more awake all the time. This may be what they are seeing with GABA levels.”

More work also is needed to identify the exact areas affected by these GABA levels. The neurotransmitter is one of the most common in the brain and can have opposing effects in different brain regions, including stimulating some areas that promote wakefulness.

Winkelman agrees. “We’re now trying to find out the specific areas of the brain that are active in insomniacs,” he says.




4/8/2019 10:36:42 AM

Hi, I’m wondering if here are any updates. I’ve had insomnia most of my life and am constantly looking for answers. I stay awake for days at a time. Sometimes I’ll sleep for a few minutes.

Insomnia research

Zarina Pooley

2/27/2018 10:23:29 AM

Hi, I am doing research at Victoria University in Australia. I have found interesting information on insomnia and would like to dig deeper into this topic. Can you please suggest forums where i could interview/do research on this issue? Thanks, Zarina

Insomnia: Neurotransmitter Balance


12/4/2014 3:11:09 PM

Neurotransmitter-driven disorders are often assumed to be deficiency problems with a specific NT but I would like to suggest that problems are more of an imbalance between multiple NTs instead. Rather than focusing on increasing GABA and providing only GABA precursors, co-factors, etc., suggest supplementing with nutrients that will help with synthesis of Serotonin, Acetylcholine, Dopamine, etc., as well. See my article here:

Any updates #3


5/31/2014 6:38:00 PM

Hi Paul, just happened to re-open this web site and noticed I had posted a comment, and then I read yours. Insomnia sucks. But there are so many factors that could be involved. Well, maybe not all of them at one time, but there are many things that could cause insomnia. I know a few things that could help you, tests that you should take. Also some things you can try to see if you get some insomnia relief. We could use Anxietyzone dot com to communicate. I have an account on there. It's a forum for those dealing wtih depression, anxiety, etc... If you are prone to anxiety, and going to a site like that bothers you, let me know. But there is a section where you can send private messages to memebers. Also, there is a section for insomnia where you can communicate with people. Many people on there are using Precription Meds, but some people try natural things also. It may not may not be a useful site for you, but at least we could use it to communicate. Does that work?

Any updates #2?


4/23/2014 10:19:59 AM

Same here, I have been suffering from insomnia since January of this year and my brain will not stop. I do not want to turn to western medicine, which is why I'm trying meditation, but all efforts so far seem to just work temporarily. I don't remember the last time I had deep sleep and I'm suffering from major brain fog / memory problems too. Would you like to connect, Michael?

Any updates?


2/18/2014 11:38:34 AM

Hi, have there been any updates to these studies on Insomnia and Gaba? I have had HORRIBLE insomnia for the past 2.5 years. Almost NOTHING helps. I have recently tried Phenibut, a derivative of Gaba discovered by the Russians, which seems to help some of the time but not all the time. It seems that my brain when I go to bed feels stimulated or wired, or alert, but not tired. My whole body feels tired/sleepy, but my brain, just feels alert. And some times I have a hard time sleeping at all, or I will fall asleep then wake up multiple times. Valerian some times helps, but nothing seems to be a cure. Not sure if I have low Gaba or not, urine tests show I did, or wasn't making enough of it at one time. Anyway, just wondering if there were any new studies and suggestions on how to fix Gaba levels. Thanks.