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Sleeplessness and Brain Shrinkage: Let The Research Speak!

Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.

Among the countless blessings of God is sleeping properly which is essential for the wellbeing of a person. Lack of sleep leads to anxiety, irritation, poor health conditions and has an adverse impact on social relationships as well. To emphasize on the importance of sleep, National Sleep Foundation was established to research about the importance of sleep in life. It has been found that many people face the trouble of insomnia across the globe and the figure goes up to 40 million in America alone. The tragedy is that nobody considers this situation important enough to get medical treatment and it goes undiagnosed most of the time. Not only this, research has shown that people face severe issues of sleeping during day time which leads to compromises on their jobs, studies and social life. All of this combined results in depression which aggravates the situation. The importance of sleep can be seen from the initiation of celebration of World Sleep Day to create awareness about this matter.

Background and Recent Research

It is vital to mention here that lack of sleep can lead to brain damage and hence, can cause brain shrinkage. It also reduces* the ability to think properly and clouds the brain since brain cells never get their proper share of rest from constant work. According to a recent research mentioned by the Journal of Neuroscience, not getting proper sleep for many hours results in burning* or death of brain cells. The experiment was performed on mice and it has been found that it has the same effect on humans as well.

Most of us love to burn the oil in our lamps over the night but it is important to note that it burns* our brain cells too. The situation of lack of sleep is becoming adverse enough that 69% American children face sleeplessness almost twice a week. The brain damage caused by lack of sleep is irreversible and only a hand full of people knows about it across the globe.

Let’s dig deeper into what happens to our brain when we stay awake at night. There are several different types of brain cells and amongst them is the Locus Ceruleus (LC). The LC neurons are responsible for keeping a person alert and awake. When a person does not get proper sleep at night, it damages these cells and the constant work done by these neurons shortens their lifespan. Ultimately, they die and this leads to an irreversible loss of LC neurons. A research conducted in the University of Pennsylvania on mice showed that if mice were put through sleeplessness conditions and late work hours like humans, their circadian rhythms were disturbed which led to apoptosis. The research was not limited to this. Another shocking revelation came when the mice were not allowed to sleep for more than five hours a day and after three days, the mice had lost 25% of their LC neurons. And this has similar effect on humans which most of us never think about ever.

Since the tests mentioned above have not yet been conducted on human beings, it cannot be said with concrete faith that it will have similar impact on human brain. However, it is important to note that mice and monkeys are the key experimental animals used for research given that their body systems are closely related to human body system. Therefore, the research is good enough to lay emphasis on the sensitivity of the issue. In addition to the research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, another research was done at the University of Surrey and the results were not very different. This new research revealed that not sleeping at night or sleeping late can result in changes in metabolism, impact the proper functioning of genes and can lead to long term diseases for the brain and heart.

Research Conducted at UMRC

While this research was taking place, another group of scientists were wrecking up their brains over the benefits of sleeping properly. They presented their research findings in October of the same year and revealed shocking results. It was shown in the research that sleeping helped in removing* harmful chemicals from brain and is the best way to detox it. The harmful chemicals that are flushed away by sleeping properly include those that cause Alzheimer’s and dementia.

When we sleep, our brain takes a break from processing all the things we think and see throughout the day. It then takes out time for itself and fixes its processes which is similar to mopping up waste. Throughout the day when the brain is working constantly, it faces issues of protein accumulation across it. When a person sleeps, his brain cleans up the excess protein stacked up inside it and enables proper blood flow. A research study was conducted at URMC to establish this fact using the brain of mice. It showed the same pattern and since the brain of mice is similar to human brain, the scientists established this fact for human brain as well.

When we sleep, the glymphatic system in our brain becomes even more active than it is when we are awake. The research conducted at UMRC stated that this system paces up ten times when a person is asleep which helps in washing away harmful chemicals from the brain. It will not be wrong to call this system the brain’s drainage system which enables the brain to get rid of amyloid-beta. Amyloid-beta is a protein which is not required by the brain as it leads to formation of plaques in it and ends up in dementia and Alzheimer’s (Haiken, 2013). This process of washing the brain’s unwanted proteins takes place in the glial cells which can be observed using two-Photon microscopy. To discuss this in more detail, the process takes place when the brain fluid, also known as the cerebrospinal fluid, passes through the neural tissues. It occupies the spaces between neurons and forces the accumulated amyloid-beta to come out of these spaces. These proteins are then taken to the circulatory system and washed away. You can raise the question that this washing process can take place anytime a person sleeps so you can sleep at whatever time you like. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This process happens at the proper sleeping hours and sleeping late or during the day hinders its proper functioning. Research has shown that when you sleep at the appropriate time, your brain cells shrink in size. This gives more space to the fluid to flow between the neurons and the washing process accelerates. The spaces between the neurons are said to increase* 60% more than they are when you are awake. Hence, it establishes sleeping to be a restorative phase for the brain which boosts* its performance for the next day.

Locus Ceruleus and Brain Shrinkage

Now let us have a look at the important of Locus Ceruleus for the body. LC is found in the brainstem and is responsible for the body’s response to panic and stress. LC is also entitled for the formation of Locus Ceruleus-noradrenergic system which is necessary for the proper functioning of the body. The purpose of this system is to maintain the emotions of a person, give cognitive control*, maintaining the sleep stage, neuroplasticity, maintaining posture, body balance, focusing and maintenance of memory. Now take out a moment and think which of these functions are not necessary for your body. Surely you cannot single out even one of them. When a person gives up his sleep at night and stays awake at late hours, he ends up killing Locus Ceruleus and this process of burning* of Locus Ceruleus is not reversible. There is limited number of these cells in the brain which are not reproduced or renewed by the brain. Once you lose* them, you bid them farewell forever without even knowing it. Let me draw your attention to another important factor associated with Locus Ceruleus and its function. The entire brain function is integrated and if one part of it is affected, it shows cyclical impact in other areas as well. In response to changes in brain, the entire bodily functions are impacted due to the fact that brain is the regulatory body of the entire system. Disruptions in the brain hinder proper functioning of the body. If Locus Ceruleus are burnt due to lack of sleep, you will experience lack of alertness in day hours, your memory will not be the same anymore, you will face balance issues, your response to stress will not be the same and you will not be able to handle stressful situations.

Locus Ceruleus helps a person in formulating his response to anxiety and stressful conditions. When a person undergoes any stressful situation, Locus Ceruleus creates a sympathetic effect for the body. Due to stress, Locus Ceruleus is activated which releases norepinephrine levels in blood (Haiken, 2014). This leads to a series of events which ends up in motivating the person and helps him in calming down. Now ponder over the important point of losing Locus Ceruleus by sleeping late or not sleeping properly. The integrated system of the body shows that when Locus Ceruleus are burnt, the chances of acquiring Alzheimer’s increase*. One of the important roles of Locus Ceruleus is to prevent Alzheimer’s which has been shown with the help of mouse experiments and models. The chemical destruction of Locus Ceruleus makes room for the disease to kick in and take charge of the brain.

Research Conducted at Oxford University

To support* this statement of brain shrinkage caused by lack of sleep, a research was conducted by some European scientists at Oxford University who examined 147 adults. This research was a based on long term sleeping habits since the research continued for three and a half years. At the beginning of the research, the subjects’ were requested to provide the MRI of their brain and then fill in a questionnaire about their sleeping routine (Val Willingham, 2014). After three and a half year, another MRI was obtained from the subjects of their brains and the two MRI scans for each subject were matched. The experiment revealed that people who claimed that they had sleeping problems had a more rapid decrease* in the volume of their brain and those who had good sleeping habits had minimal change in their brain sizes. This is also explained by the fact that lack of sleep causes the onset of Alzheimer’s that leads to memory loss. Therefore, if memory loss can be caused by sleeplessness then brain size can also be decreased*. Staying up late at night for studying or work is hard for many people but with the passage of time, they develop this habit of not sleeping at the right time or sleeping less* due to the loss of Locus Ceruleus which is responsible for maintaining sleep cycle as well. Hence, this atrophy is caused by lack of sleep.

Brain and its Responsibilities

Getting proper sleep is the key to the proper aging of the body and not sleeping at the right time only triggers the body to become weak at a faster rate. Brain needs to maintain its balance as well and for that it needs a break at the end of the day as well. Sleep is necessary for maintaining the homeostatic balance of brain. Brain is a vital part of the body which maintains the entire body’s system and enables the smooth functioning of the body. It is the engine of the body and to drive the system of the body properly, it needs to have proper rest as well. What most of us forget is that the brain is not in need of rest and the fact that it even works when we are sleeping makes us believe that no matter what happens, brain cannot be damaged by lack of sleep. May be our lives are shaped too much by diseases such as heart attack, diabetes and high blood pressure that we don’t give importance to our brain. And this is the place where we make the biggest mistake which costs us for the whole life. Let’s have a look at the function of brain and the link of body’s health with it in broader terms. Brain is the regulator of the body and no matter how small any act is, our brain in involved in it. When we get pricked by a small needle and instantly feel a pang of pain, our brain helps us in realizing that something has happened to our body. In that micro second in which we get pricked, feel pain and draw our self away from the source of pain, our brain has performed numerous functions. It realizes the entrance of a foreign particle in our body which is felt by the sensory receptors on the surface of the skin. These receptors send signals to the brain which sends signals back to that part of body to activate pain receptors which are found a bit deeper under the skin. When pain receptors are activated, they send signals back to the brain and the brain then sends signals to the muscles associated in that part of the brain to contract and help the body in moving away from the source of pain. All of this happens in the tiniest fraction of a second and we never realize any of this happening when we draw our self away. We encounter several such things in a day and this is just a small example. We do trillions of things per day and our brain is processing countless things all the time. At the end of the day, this engine of the body should also be entitles to rest to make sure it is ready to work again the next morning. Sounds fair, isn’t it?

In the light of all the researches and the data mentioned in the article, it will not be wrong to say sleep and health are connected to each other and lack of sleep is similar to a time bomb for brain and for a person’s health. Like you never are aware of when a time bomb will go off and how much destruction it will cause, you are also not aware of the damage you are doing to your brain by not getting proper sleep. The situation is America in this regard is taking the shape of an epidemic where majority of the population is addicted to staying up late at night and not getting proper sleep.

Even CDC is calling it to be an epidemic to make people aware of how critical it is for a healthy population to get their required share of sleep each day. In the quest of earning more money, people are now getting used to working round the clock or making night shifts as well to earn a few more dollars. Though they earn a few more dollars by doing so, they will not get their brain back, not even by sleeping for the entire weekend.
 

References:

  • Haiken, M. (2013). Sleep ‘Detoxes’ The Brain, New Research Suggests. Forbes. Retrieved 21 September 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2013/10/18/sleep-detoxes-the-brain-new-research-suggests/
  • Haiken, M. (2014). Lack Of Sleep Kills Brain Cells, New Study Shows. Forbes. Retrieved 21 September 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2014/03/20/lack-of-sleep-kills-brain-cells-new-study-suggests/
  • Val Willingham, C. (2014). Lack of sleep may shrink your brain. CNN. Retrieved 21 September 2014, from http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/04/health/no-sleep-brain-size/