New research from Penn Medicine warns that chronic lack of sleep may be much more serious than we realize, leading to an irreversible loss of brain cells.
It is commonly thought that chronically sleep-deprived individuals, such as 3rd shift workers, could simply catch up on lost sleep, repaying one’s “sleep debt” without much long-term consequence. In this study, researchers determined that extended wakefulness might result in losing or injuring neurons that are crucial for thinking and alertness.
“In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss,” said Sigrid Veasey, MD, one of the study’s lead researchers. “… some of the research in humans has shown that attention span and several other aspects of cognition may not normalize even with three days of recovery sleep, raising the question of lasting injury in the brain. We wanted to figure out exactly whether chronic sleep loss injures neurons, whether the injury is reversible, and which neurons are involved.”
Using a mouse model, the sleep researchers mimicked a typical shift worker’s sleep pattern, carefully examining the periods following normal rest, short wakefulness, and extended wakefulness.
During short wakefulness periods, the mitochondria – the energy-producing powerhouse within cells – was able to adapt and protect the cells from death by producing more sirtuin type 3 (SirT3) protein. The increased SirT3 production did not occur during periods of extended wakefulness.
After several days of sleep deprivation, the mice lost 25% of neurons essential for alertness and cognition.
Of course, more research is necessary to investigate sleep deprivation-induced brain cell loss in humans. Next, the research team plans to examine shift workers post-mortem, for evidence of increased brain cell loss and signs of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
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