A University of Chicago team led by Dr Matthew Brady studied the effect of sleep restriction on insensitivity in human subcutaneous fat cells.
Dr Brady and his team asked seven volunteers to sleep for either four hours a night for four consecutive nights, or 8.5 hours a night for the same period.
The order in which volunteers undertook these two interventions was randomised.
The researchers then took biopsies of fat cells and looked at how well the cells responded to exposure to increasing insulin concentrations.
They looked at the ability of insulin to raise levels of phosphorylated protein kinase B, a key part of the insulin-signalling pathway.
Dr Brady and his team found a 30% reduction in cellular insulin sensitivity in adipocyte cells collected following sleep restriction.
They said the study provided 'additional evidence that insufficient sleep may contribute to the development of, or exacerbate, metabolic disorders'.
'To our knowledge, this finding identifies for the first time a molecular mechanism that may be involved in the reduction in total body insulin sensitivity consistently observed in multiple laboratory studies of partial sleep deprivation in healthy adults, as well as in the participants of our study,' they said.
Dr Brady and his colleagues said research should now look at the therapeutic relevance of the finding. 'Future studies are needed to determine whether optimising sleep duration may delay the development, or reduce the severity, of metabolic alterations in persons at increased risk for diabetes,' they said.
Additional trials also need to look at whether 'maintaining sufficient sleep duration may be an important behavioural modification, in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise, to prevent and treat obesity and diabetes', they said.