Sleep Deprivation May Cause Brain To Eat Itself, Study Finds

Posted: May 27 2017, 4:10am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News

 
Sleep Deprivation may Cause Brain to Eat Itself, Study Finds
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'Clean-up' cells become more active in the brain after lack of sleep

The brain starts eating itself when it doesn’t get enough sleep, a new study suggests.

Researcher reached this conclusion after studying the effects of sleep deprivation in mice. 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. When researchers compared the brains of all these mice, they were surprised to find that brains of chronically sleep deprived mice literally consumed bits of themselves.

The ‘brain eating’ was caused by the accelerated activity of a specific type of cell, called astrocytes. These cells act as a housekeeper, clearing damaged or too week synapses and recycling them to create the new ones. Researchers found that these 'clean-up’ cells were more active in the brain after a period of sleep deprivation.

Astrocytes appeared to be active around 6 percent in the brains of mice with sufficient sleep. Those that had lost eight hours of sleep showed astrocyte activity in around 8 percent of their synapses, while the process was most prevalent (13.5 percent) in the synapses of chronically sleep-deprived mice.

“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.” Lead researcher Michele Bellesi from Italy’s Marche Polytechnic University told New Scientist.

Clearing damaged synapses inside the brain may be beneficial in the short term but lack of sleep that triggers astrocytes to break down more of the brain’s connections could cause harm in the long term. This could also explain why chronically sleep deprived people are at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders.

“We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration.” Bellesi said.

But in one way the process is a good thing. Most of the synapses that were getting eaten in the sleep-deprived mice were the large ones. They tend to be older and heavily used.

“They are like old pieces of furniture, and so probably need more attention and cleaning.”Bellesi said.

Researchers are still not sure whether getting more sleep could reverse the harmful effects of a few sleepless nights.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.

 

 

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