Lost sleep leads to loss of brain cells, study suggests

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Sleep loss may be more serious than previously thought, causing a permanent loss of brain cells, research suggests.

In mice, prolonged lack of sleep led to 25% of certain brain cells dying, according to a study in The Journal of Neuroscience.

If the same is true in humans, it may be futile to try to catch up on missed sleep, say US scientists.

They think it may one day be possible to develop a drug to protect the brain from the side-effects of lost sleep.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at lab mice that were kept awake to replicate the kind of sleep loss common in modern life, through night shifts or long hours in the office.

Start Quote

We now have evidence that sleep loss can lead to irreversible injury”

End Quote Prof Sigrid Veasey University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

A team at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine studied certain brain cells which are involved in keeping the brain alert.

After several days of sleep patterns similar to those followed by night workers - three days of night shifts with only four to five hours sleep in 24 hours - the mice lost 25% of the brain cells, in part of the brain stem.

The researchers say this is the first evidence that sleep loss can lead to a loss of brain cells.

But they add that more work needs to be done to find out if people who miss out on sleep might also be at risk of permanent damage.

Prof Sigrid Veasey of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, told BBC News: "We now have evidence that sleep loss can lead to irreversible injury.

"This might be in a simple animal but this suggests to us that we are going to have to look very carefully in humans."

She said the next step was to examine the brains of shift workers after death for evidence of any loss of brain cells.

Office workers for IPC Media work late into the night in the Blue Fin Building in Southwark in 2010 Shift work may have permanent health implications

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.

Prof Hugh Piggins of the University of Manchester said the experiment indicated in a mouse model of sleep deprivation what might go wrong in the human brain.

"The authors draw parallels with night shift work in humans and suggest how chronic sleep deprivation could adversely affect not only our physical, but also our mental health," he said.

"This possibility will need to be tested by a lot more research. Nonetheless, it is consistent with many recent reports of importance of circadian clocks and sleep cycles for optimal well-being. "


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  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    Great timing on this story for me, I just pulled my first all nighter in years (studying, nothing too fun) then went to work for 11 hours. I can emphasize with the mice. After 36 hours awake (and still counting) I have done some spectacularly stupid things, I feel like I have been lobotomised but still don't feel tired. At one point I found myself dancing to the buzz of the vending machine! Hmmmmm

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Certainly adds credence that the enhanced interrogation techniques using sleep deprivation are not safe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    As a shift worker I sometimes have to work Saturday from 6am - 2pm then I have to switch to night shift and be back at work at 10pm Sunday night, its crazy hard to do and its legal.
    It dosen't take a genius to realise that it's not good for you, but what industry cares about that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Gove, Wilshaw, Hunt et al won't like this. They want everyone working twelve hour days and stressing constantly about not having ticked the right boxed or jumped through the right hoops, not sleeping!

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Night shift workers should be allowed to retire at least 5 years early , i work nites and i feel the affects , memory loss , weight gain , i dont feel good for a couple of days after , we need more money and early retirement !

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Those in work appear to be working harder than ever and find it difficult to get enough sleep. Both parents working, long office hours and excessive commutes are tragedies of modern life. What a contrast with projections made in the 1970s when technology was expected to give us more leisure time than we would know what to do with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Those saying "Well, such and such famous person got by with very little sleep" remember not everything someone says about themselves is true, perhaps more so if they are a politician or otherwise famous. Claiming not to sleep will make them seem tougher but it is not necessarily true... and even if it is, they also had servants to take care of all their household chores and errands for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    Lost sleep may mean lost brain cells

    How can one lose something if one didnt have it or experience it.

    It would make more sense to say MISSED SLEEP

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    "Thatcher only slept 5 hours per day.
    So proof or poppycock depending on your political view."

    She had dementia when she died. That kind of confirms the idea that she at least lost some brain cells at some point, whatever you think about her career.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Now if only we could have a two hour lunch break like the Spanish we could enjoy a siesta and get by with less sleep at night

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    So next time you drag your teen out of bed at the crack of dawn they will have a new justification for hating you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    So lack of sleep is the reason for the stadard of posts on hys lol :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Sleep is for people who are too lazy to work 24/7/365

    Rise of the machines will put an end to laziness & the need for 6 billion humans

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Lies, damned lies, and statistics!

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    while the world waits for a pharmaceutical solution to this problem perhaps employers and the government should do the honourable thing now and give shift workers more time off to recover, and invest in working conditions and practices that reduce the effects of sleep deprivation; failing that give employees adequate financial recompense ....most shift work allowances are very poor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    Science attempts to sort fact from anecdote. Not many serious scientists here then. If a controlled finding is made you should at the very least examine it carefully before pronouncing all this drivel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    This is clearly rubbish - after all, Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have had only a few hours sleep each night, and she was clearly short of more than a few brain cells.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    200. Get up at 7!
    My daughter gets up at 5.30 to get to the bus stop for 6.30. 2 hours to work. finishes work at 5.30 gets home at 7.30. then she has to get a meal etc. She hasn't any or having any children and with the age retirement going up she will have worked a total of 49 years when she retires.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    I'm more worried about the schoolchildren who have to get unnaturally early to make school start times - especially teenagers. And what about the poor office workers who have to be in the office for 9am, and might have to get up at 7am to do it. Nothing wrong with a nocturnal lifestyle - never heard of vampires with sleep deprivation issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    #197 and the fitter you are the less you need. I was not fit 5 years ago and needed 8 hrs sleep at least. Got really into swimming recently and only need 6 hrs a night...

    ...unfortunately I still fall asleep at 10pm so wake up at 4. Hmmm.


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