Anyone who has ever had a sleepless night will know insomnia turns you into a bit of a zombie.
But a new study has made the alarming discovery that sleep deprivation causes your brain to eat itself.
Examining mice who are chronically sleep-deprived, an Italian team of researchers found that brain cells designed to rid their brain of worn-out cells and debris went into overdrive in cases of extreme tiredness.
While the cells – called astrocytes and microglials – have short-term benefits to the health of your brain, by strengthening and cleaning up connections, overtime this phenomenon could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders, according to Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy.
Bellesi and his team came to this conclusion after examining three groups of mice; some had the optimum level of sleep, others were kept awake for eight hours longer and a third group were kept awake for five days, mimicking chronic sleep loss.
The scientists found that astrocytes were active in around 6 per cent of the brain synapses of well-rested mice, where that figure shot up to 13.5 per cent in sleep-deprived mice.
Thus, sleep-deprivation appears to trigger astrocytes to break down more brain synapses than usual, as their study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests.
Bellesi told New Scientist:
We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.
The team also found that microglial cells – that are linked to a range of brain disorders – were more active after chronic sleep deprivation.
Bellesi confirmed the worrisome development, adding: “We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration.”
Clearly, getting your recommended dose of beauty sleep has never been more important.
For help coping with sleep deprivation, please contact your GP or visit the NHS online for advice.