Why Lack of Sleep Has a Deleterious Effect on the Brain

Few things are worse for your health than long-term sleep deprivation. The sleep deprived have a higher risk of quite a number of conditions including heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and depression. Lack of sleep also has a deleterious effect on the brain, particularly on memory and cognition.

Besides harried work schedules and our obsessions with our smart phones, sleep disorders are prevalent, with 50-70 million American adults experiencing one. Sleep apnea and insomnia are two of the most common examples. The issue has gotten so serious that the CDC has dubbed insufficient sleep a public health problem. 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep, a CDC report last year found.

On a societal level, sleep deprivation accounts for lost productivity, medical errors, and car and industrial accidents. One study showed that medical students doing their residency, which sometimes includes as long as 30-hour shifts, are more prone to mistakes. What scientists didn’t know was why the sleep deprived suffered cognitive lapses, like forgetfulness or slower response time. That is until now.

1 in 3 US adults don’t get enough sleep, which affects their health and cognition. Credit: Getty Images.

Dr. Itzhak Fried is a neurosurgeon at UCLA and Tel Aviv University. Along with colleagues, he recently discovered the neural underpinnings of sleep deprivation. The team also showed how such deficiencies lead to cognitive lapses. The authors describe their findings in a new paper published in the journal Nature Medicine. Dr. Fried and his team found that neurons literally can’t function properly when we lack sleep. “This leads to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us,” he said.

The study began with 12 patients who all suffer intractable epilepsy. Each patient was undergoing depth electrode monitoring. This is where a small hole is drilled into the skull and an electrode is placed inside. This is to determine where the seizures are emanating from, with the hope of correcting the issue through surgery.

Sleep deprivation can trigger a seizure. To shorten their stay in the hospital, the patients stayed up all night to evoke one. Researchers asked them several times over the course of the night to identify a number of images as fast as they could. These were six images of celebrities, famous landmarks, and animals. The implanted electrodes meanwhile recorded the combined firing of 1,500 neurons, which includes…

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