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ERC grant for pioneering research into anxiety and insomnia

26 April 2022
Anxiety disorders and chronic insomnia are the two most common psychiatric conditions. From the Dutch Institute for Brain Research, VU Amsterdam and Amsterdam UMC, ‘Sleep Professor’ Eus van Someren will carry out the first ever study into the combination of these disorders. The European Research Council has awarded him the prestigious ERC Advanced Grant for this research.

There is still insufficient knowledge about the underlying causes of anxiety disorders and chronic insomnia to be able to improve the treatment of these conditions. Eus van Someren and his research team want to change this. Van Someren has been working for years to improve the treatment of insomnia and was responsible for making the Netherlands the international leader in fundamental insomnia research. 

Disorders that should not be treated separately
“When you realise how often anxiety and insomnia occur in combination, it is actually strange that these disorders have been studied and treated separately all this time,” says Van Someren. “There is also a strong overlap in the complaints experienced; sufferers feel tense, stressed, and ‘hyped’. This can actually be measured in the activity of the brain and other organs. The unbearable symptoms of these disorders can be interrupted if we stop artificially separating day and night.”

Together with the patients
The team is using the site slaapregister.nl to find people to participate in the study who, in addition to sleeping poorly, also suffer from anxiety, stress or emotional dysregulation. Thousands of potential candidates will be able to help the researchers by completing the questionnaires. Hundreds of these will measure their brain activity before, during and after sleep in their own home. Various treatments will also be tested, including new drugs. Van Someren predicts that people will be better able to manage their anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms if their sleep improves.

Preconceptions
“During many conversations with patients, psychologists, psychiatrists, somnologists and researchers, I noticed time and again how difficult it is to get people to change their preconceptions,” says Van Someren. “A disorder always encompasses a whole range of things that are not going well for the subject, both physically and emotionally. The preconceptions about these disorders really need to be put behind us if we are to come to a better understanding and better treatments. So, I’m very pleased that, thanks to this grant, my fantastic team and I will be able to make great strides towards making that happen.”

Ground-breaking research
The ERC, part of the European Commission, awards grants for pioneering research to a select number of excellent scientists. It is exceptional that Van Someren is now receiving this grant for the second time. His previous project, which was awarded a grant in 2015, produced many innovative and practically applicable insights. Thanks to that project, we now have a better understanding of why insomnia can lead to depression and how to prevent that happening.