Lack Of Sleep May Cause The Brain To Literally Eat Itself

Republished with permission from Musely an Evio Community Partner

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A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that missing out on sleep may actually cause parts of our brain to start eating other parts. Researchers from Marche Polytechnic University in Italy compared two groups of mice to see how sleep affected their brains. 

The researchers looked at a type of cells called astrocytes, which kill unnecessary synapses in your brain. What are synapses? Imagine your brain as a bunch of islands, with information traveling between these islands. Synapses are the bridges that connect them. 

One group was allowed to sleep for as long as they wanted to, or had been kept awake for eight hours. Another group were kept awake for 5 days in a row – mimicking the effects of chronic sleep loss. 

The study found that after an undisturbed sleep, astrocytes (the brain-bridge destroyers) appeared to be active in around 6% of the well-rested mice. However, astrocytes seemed to be more than twice as active in sleep-deprived mice – those that had lost 8 hours of sleep showed astrocyte activity in around 8% of their synapses, while chronically sleep-deprived mice showed astrocyte activity in 13.5% of their synapses. 

According to "New Scientist," this suggests that sleep loss can trigger astrocytes to start breaking down more of the brain's bridges and their debris - AKA eating away parts of the brain. Twice as many of their brain synapses were being destroyed. 

"We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss," said Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University. 

However, in the short term, this might be beneficial, according to Bellesi. He states that clearing potentially harmful debris and rebuilding worn circuitry might protect healthy brain connections. But in the long term it may cause harm, as a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders.