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too little sleep

Find out the toll that not getting enough sleep can take on your brain (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

By now, we all know that not getting enough sleep is very bad for your health. Not getting enough sleep increases your risk for diabetes, cardiovascular problems, obesity, and even high blood pressure. It impairs your attention, focus, memory, and alertness. It makes you cranky and snippy which can damage your interpersonal relationships.   And, according to new research just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, not getting enough sleep can actually damage and even destroy brain cells.

The study was conducted at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania and sought to gain a better understanding of what happens in the brain when it is deprived of sleep for prolonged periods of time. Using mice, the team was able to identify a very specific type of brain cell that is damages after extended periods of wakefulness.

Called locus ceruleus (LC) neurons, these brain cells are an important part of the system that keeps us awake and alert when we are supposed to be. These findings are the first conclusive proof that extended periods of sleep deprivation can actually cause irreversible damage.

During the study, the mice were subjected to the same kind of sleep schedule a human who was working on an alternate shift might experience.  The mice were only allowed to sleep for 4-5 hours during each 24 hour period.

This kind of sleep deprivation is very common in humans, which does not bode well for our collective health when you look deeper at these findings. On average, almost a third of adult Americans report getting less than 7 hours of sleep at night. This means that nearly 33% of the adult population may be suffering long-term ongoing brain cell death simply because they are not sleeping enough.

And it doesn’t take long for this irreversible harm to begin.   It only took three days of this type of sleep deprivation for the mice to lose 25% of the LC neurons in a specific region of their brain stem. This is a substantial loss in a very short period of time.

The study did find a small ray of hope however. While confirming that lack of sleep can destroy LC neurons, the team also learned that a specific protein called SirT3 (sirtuin type 3) actually protects these brain cells from sleep deprivation damage.  This means that SirT3 may make it possible to protect our brains from the harmful effects of not getting enough sleep.

This study and its findings are only preliminary and there is a chance that the results seen in mice will not be replicated in humans. To see if this is something that happens to humans as well as mice, the research team’s next project will be to look at the brains of shift workers during autopsies to confirm if similar damage appears to exist.