If your work schedule or lifestyle keeps you from getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you might want to read the recent sleep study report from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine – if you have the brain cells to read it, that is. The study came to conclusion that regular sleep deprivation can damage your brain, permanently.
According doctor Sigrid Veasey who, along with colleagues from Peking University conducted the study, said that in general it was assumed that the brain fully recovered after bouts of short- or long-term sleep loss. But there were some studies that suggested that people didn’t always fully recover even after a few days of full sleep.
So, Veasey’s team wanted to figure out if sleep loss injures neurons, exactly which neurons it injures and if the brain could repaired itself with extra sleep.
To begin to answer those questions, they put groups of mice on different sleep schedules, which mimicked the average work schedules of shift workers. Some mice had normal rest, another group had little sleep for a short period of time and the final group were deprived of sleep for an extended amount of time.
What they found was that, in response to short amounts of time without sleep, the brain of the mice produced a certain protein which protected the neurons in the locus coeruleus (LC) – the part of the brain responsible for alertness. But over a long periods of time without sleep, the brain stopped producing the protein and the neurons in LC began to die. They determined that the mice lost up to 25 percent of the neurons in the LC.
According to Dr. Veasey, this is the first study to show that sleep loss can lead to permanent brain damage in mice. At this point, there are several questions that Dr. Veasey says his team plans to do more research on.
First, the team will look at the brains of shift workers, post-mortem, to see if the results that they saw in mice are the same in humans. They also need to determine what counts as short-term or long-term sleep loss in humans, as well as the amount of neuron loss. Dr. Veasey said that the amount of loss could very quite a bit between individuals when you take into consideration things like age, weight, sedentary lifestyle, diet, and overall health.
They will also be doing more tests with the protein that protected the cells during short-term sleep loss. If it turns out the the protein can help with long-term sleep deprivation, Dr. Veasey that this could be the first step in developing a treatment for people like shift workers, who regularly forego sleep.
Dr. Veasey said that up until this point, no one believed that damage could be done to the brain just from lack of sleep. But that the findings of his study support a growing body of research which deals with how important it is to get regular amounts of rest.
By Dan Reyes