Try to remember back to your college days, if you can. How many times did you push through finals week, staying up all night pounding out a term paper, running exclusively on coffee, saying you’d straighten out your sleep schedule once the weekend hit? And how often are current students still repeating that exact same pattern?
According to a new study, they could be putting themselves on track for permanent brain damage.
Today, it’s plenty common for those who work night shifts (especially truck drivers on delivery deadline) to postpone their nightly sleep until a later “catch-up” date. However, Sigrid Veasey, a neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania, says the brain doesn’t operate like that. Naps aren’t a viable way for your brain to recharge, and the suspension of sleep in the interim is actually causing a whole host of problems including the loss of brain cells.
These results were found through a series of experiments conducted at the university’s School of Medicine. Like a lot of modern experiments, this one was performed on laboratory mice.
Veasey and her researchers allowed the mice to sleep, then woke them up for short periods and longer periods of time. The mice’s brain activity was examined, specifically the nerve bundles responsible for alertness and cognitive function. The results, published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, show that the inconsistent sleep caused lasting damage to the mice’s brains — including a 25% loss of those specific neurons.
“No one really thought that the brain could be irreversibly injured from sleep loss,” Veasey tells The Independent. “This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons.”
Of course, it can’t be proven that there’s a concrete link between this kind of brain damage in mice and the same kind in humans. For that, Veasey says, more research is needed. However, if the same developments were to be shown in humans, scientists may be able to develop a sleep treatment that could shield us from these harmful effects.
“Consistency is the biggest thing that people can do,” explains Danny Rivera, owner of Mattress Market Outlet in Leesburg, Florida. “Turn the TV off before you go to bed. Wind down, and don’t work in bed. There was a study done where people who ate after 7:00 pm didn’t sleep as well, so be sure to eat before then as well.”
There have previously been plenty of studies on what causes sleep deficiencies, and one of the biggest ones historically has been uncomfortable sleeping conditions. Poor mattress support, for example, has led to numerous lower back problems in humans throughout the world and specifically in the United States.
While it’s still too early to tell, the writing seems to be on the wall when it comes to humans and sleep. And oddly enough, it’s likely the same exact writing we’ve been hearing about for years and years: “Get more of it.” Of course, that will always be easier said than done. But if this latest study is any indication, it might just be time we started trying a bit harder for the sake of our brains.