The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

Exhaustion and fatigue, for which we somehow always blame lack of sleep, can also have another explanation - lack of brain capacity.

A team of researchers, led by neuroscientist Michele Bellesi from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy, have concluded that prolonged periods of sleeplessness can cause the brain to demolish and digest its own neurons and synaptic connections. In particular they studied the activity of two keys types of glial cells-astrocytes and microglial cells-that have previously been shown to have increased activity after sleep deprivation. Together, they will prowl the organ and, essentially, conduct nightly maintenance to keep the complex network of your brain in order.

In the short term, this might be beneficial - clearing potentially harmful debris and rebuilding worn circuitry might protect healthy brain connections. Think of it as frantic housekeeping, when the brain throws out the dishes along with the stains.

Previous research has found that chronic sleep deprivation increases so-called plaques in the brain thought to be a main cause of Alzheimer's and other dementias. During the study, mice were either allowed to have sufficient sleep or were kept awake for 8 hours to many days to replicate sleep deprivation.

This alone may not necessarily be a bad thing. Specifically looking at cells called astrocytes cells, the researchers found that the sleep-deprived mice showed more activity with these cells.

According to a new Italian study cited by, chronic lack of sleep forces the brain's normal process of refreshing itself into overdrive.

Bellisi's team found that after an undisturbed sleep, astrocytes appeared to be active in around six per cent of the synapses in the brains of the well-rested mice.

Phagocytosis of presynaptic components by astrocytes was shown to be elevated after both acute and chronic sleep loss compared with normal sleep-wake patterns. "We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer's and other forms of neurodegeneration", he said. On the other hand, microglial activity in mice that mimicked chronic sleep deprivation experienced a 13.5 percent spike in astrocyte activity. "The researchers plan to investigate how long the effects of sleep deprivation last". Since the additional activity was seen at the largest, most mature synapses, it may be that these synapses were in need of additional cleaning and that this is highlighted in a state of sleep deprivation.

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