New research suggests sleep deprivation could lead to a permanent loss of brain cells
Sleep deprivation could lead to a permanent loss of brain cells, according to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The research found mice experiencing chronic sleep loss saw 25 percent of their brain cells die, and scientists fear humans could suffer the same neuronal injuries.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine aimed to determine if chronic sleep loss damages brain cells involved in keeping the brain alert, and if this damage can be reversed.
The team studied lab mice, keeping them awake for periods of time that were similar to human sleep loss, such as when people work night shifts or long hours. After three days of shift-work sleep patterns, mice lost 25 percent of brain cells in part of the brain stem.
Lead author Sigrid Veasey said previous research on humans has shown attention span and several other aspects of cognition do not return back to normal even with three days of recovery sleep, raising the possibility that permanent damage had been sustained.
She said more research will need to be undertaken to see if people who regularly miss out on sleep could also suffer permanent brain cell damage.
If a similar phenomenon does occur in humans, the researchers believe it could be possible to develop a treatment that would protect against the harmful effects of losing sleep.
In the long-term, they think it might be possible to develop a medicine that protects brain cells, by boosting a natural chemical involved in sleep recovery.
The team also plans to examine shift workers post-mortem for evidence of increased brain cell loss and signs of disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since some previous mouse models have shown that cell damage can accelerate the course of those diseases.
“No one really thought that the brain could be irreversibly injured from sleep loss.” Dr Veasey said in comments published by the UK’s Independent newspaper. “This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons.”
“If we can show that we can protect the cells and wakefulness, then we’re launched in the direction of a promising therapeutic target for millions of shift workers.”