A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that staying awake too long destroys brain cells in mice, and may also have the same effect on humans! While you sleep, your body is able to clear away neurological ‘wear and tear’ from the day, however when you do not get the sleep necessary for this to occur, the damage may be irreversible.
Researchers from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania found that when we stay awake for too long, it is damaging to a particular type of brain cell called locus ceruleus neurons. These cells play an important role in keeping us alert and awake.
“We now have evidence that sleep loss can lead to irreversible injury. This might be in a simple animal but this suggest to us that we are going to have to look very carefully in humans.” explained lead author Sigrid Veasey, MD, associate professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
During the study the researchers limited the mice to 4 – 5 hours of sleep each over a 24-hour time period. Just three days into this new sleep schedule the sleep deprived mice experienced at 25% loss of locus ceruleus neurons in a specific section of the brain stem. Further research will be required to see if this same result would occur in human test subjects. Researchers stated that their next steps will be to conduct autopsies to examine the brain cells of shift workers, to see if the results extend to the human population.
Another ground breaking study conducted by a team of neuroscientists from Marche Polytechnic University focused on the glial cells, known as the glue of the nervous system. These cells work to refresh the neurons in the brain while people sleep. The study shows that when someone does not get enough sleep, this action goes into overdrive, moving into a state of self-harm.
The researchers compared the activity in 4 groups of mice. It was found that this ‘cleaning’ had occurred at a level of 5.7% in the mice that were well rested, 7.3% in those that had been kept awake for 8 hours, and 13.5% in those who were chronically sleep deprived. At this stage, it showed the body was essentially ‘eating’ parts of the brain like the microglial cells would eat waste, creating damage to the brain.
Despite this information now being available, the American population is not listening! The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently announced that insufficient sleep is an epidemic in America! Their most recent survey found that out of nearly 75,000 adults, more than a third reported getting less than 7 hours of sleep each night, and 38% of those surveyed admitted to unintentionally falling asleep during the day due to being overtired.
The moral of the story? Sleep is not just a luxury to enjoy when we are able to find time. In order to ensure that your brain is healthy and functioning at its highest capacity, make sleep a priority!