Lack of Sleep – Causing Your Brain to Eat Itself?

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Is lack of sleep turning your brain into a cannibal? That might be a bit of a hyperbole, but the latest research indicates that chronically depriving yourself of sleep can result in serious brain burn out.

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These new findings come by way of Dr. Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy. Bellesi and his team conducted a research trial to investigate the effects of sleep deprivation in mice. The results of which, are alarming to say the least.

The Study on Lack of Sleep

To study the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain, researchers segmented mice into separate groups consisting of:

  • Mice allowed to sleep as long as they wanted
  • Mice kept up an additional 8 hours past when they normally fell asleep naturally
  • Mice that were sleep deprived for 4.5 days

Researchers were interested in glial cells, which constitute the “housekeeping” and maintenance systems in the brain. More specifically, the team zeroed in on a type of cell, known as astrocytes, which remove unnecessary synapses in the brain to reorganize its wiring. They also were interested in microglial cells, which scavenge the brain looking for damaged neural cells or toxic debris.

The team’s interest in sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain was brought on by an earlier study that showed the gene that governs the activity of these glial cells was increased after lack of sleep.

Sleep Study Results

Researchers found that the brain cells that glial cell activity was significantly increased following periods of sleep deprivation. While some activity is good, as normal maintenance and “tidying up” of the brain is necessary, overactive glial cells can be extremely detrimental as researchers found out.

At the conclusion of the trial, the team noted that in the well-rested mice, astrocyte activity was present in only 6% of their brain synapses. However, in the sleep deprived groups, the results were much worse.

Mice that had lost 8 hours of sleep experienced an 8% increase in astrocyte activity, while the mice that were kept awake for 4.5 days straight had astrocyte activity present in 13.5% of their synapses!

Essentially, these overactive glial cells were cannibalizing the brains of these mice. If that’s not enough to make you start sleeping adequately, we’re not sure what will.

Researchers contend that the results could explain why chronic lack of sleep puts humans at risk for certain neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Based on the results, lead researcher Michele Bellesi said:

“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss…We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration.”

One thing researchers weren’t certain of was whether getting more sleep could protect the brain and prevent the onset of neurological disorders, but they plan to study that in the near future as well as investigate how long the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation last.

Do you get enough sleep each night? Do the results of this study make you want to get more sleep at night?

Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

References

Bellesi M, de Vivo L, Chini M, Gilli F, Tononi G, Cirelli C. Sleep Loss Promotes Astrocytic Phagocytosis and Microglial Activation in Mouse Cerebral Cortex. J Neurosci. 2017;37(21):5263 LP-5273. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/37/21/5263.abstract

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