Health

Workaholics Beware: Study Shows Sleep Loss Can Cause Permanent Brain Damage

| by Jonathan Wolfe

Scientists have told us for years that sleep deprivation is bad for our health. Among many other things, chronic sleep loss can impair cognitive abilities, cause premature aging, and lead to depression.

We’ve also been told that we can reverse these negative effects by catching up on sleep and erasing our so-called sleep debt. A new study out of the University of Pennsylvania calls this common wisdom into question.

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Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine just released a study showing that sleep deprivation can cause irreversible neuron damage. The study's findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Lead researcher Sigrid Veasey, M.D., and her team found that sleep deprivation can cause both injury to and loss of the very neurons we depend on for alertness and optimal cognition, the locus coeruleus (LC) neurons.

Veasey’s team used mice to emulate the sleep patterns of workers laboring through long shifts with inadequate sleep in-between.  

At first, the mice produced a protein to protect the neurons during the stressful wake-sleep cycle. But after several days, this reaction waned and the nerves began to undergo cell death. The cell death was so extensive that the mice ended up losing 25% of their LC neurons.

As Veasey noted, this is the first study to find that sleep loss can cause long-term brain damage.

“This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons," Veasey said. Before this study, she added, "No one really thought that the brain could be irreversibly injured from sleep loss.”

Veasey said the study’s findings demand more research. She and her team hope to examine the brains of deceased shift workers to see if they display the same type of brain damage. If so, it’s time for a serious reevaluation of the way we view sleep as a society. 

Sources: University of Pennsylvania, The Journal of Neuroscience