New research indicates chronic sleep loss may cause irreversible physical damage to the brain. Most people realize a lack of sleep can impair their cognitive performance, but they also think they can simply catch up by getting extra sleep subsequently. But after experimenting on mice, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found extended wakefulness was linked to injury and even a loss of neurons.
“The impact of even a small amount of sleep loss can be quite remarkable and have severe consequences,” says Prof. Stuart Fogel, a research scientist at Western University in London, Ontario. “These consequences could even lead downstream, if left unchecked, to perhaps diseased processes and more severe neurodegeneration and increasing sort of snowball effects into increasing sleep loss and further downstream consequences. So, left unchecked, it could be a real problem.”
‘One third of Canadians lack sleep’
An estimated 30 per cent of the Canadian population does not get enough sleep, says Fogel. For many, a busy lifestyle leads people to shorten the amount of time they sleep. There are others who suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia. Then there are a raft of people who work night shifts which may compromise their sleep.
Some mice were put on a typical shift worker’s sleep pattern for this experiment. After several days, they were shown to experience cell death and a loss of neurons. Mice are not people but this study was done on a molecular and cellular level, says Fogel, and since all animals sleep many of the processes are similar and the mouse model can help researchers understand what is going on in humans.
Sleep, a ‘pillar of good health’
Most at risk from a lack of sleep are children whose brains are developing and seniors who, according to Fogel’s own research, do not get the same benefits from sleep and often suffer sleep disruptions. Sleep, he says, is important for everyone.
“I think there is this perception that perhaps sleep is something optional,” says Fogel. “But it really is one of our strongest biological drives and one of the pillars of good health.”