The Crazy Thing That Happens When You Don't Sleep

Sleep research IDs some immediate changes that occur in your brain when you can't fall asleep.

December 31, 2013


In 2013, American researchers made big headlines by discovering sleep's role in clearing toxins from the brain, a process that helps remove plaques that can go on to cause Alzheimer's disease.  But new sleep research shows just one night of sleeplessness can harm your brain.


In the new study, Swedish scientists kept some study participants awake throughout the night, allowing another group to enjoy the optimal eight hours of sleep. They found that one night of sleep deprivation increases morning blood concentrations of NSE and S-100B, two biomarkers in the blood that signal brain damage.

To be clear, the levels were not on par with what doctors would expect to see after a serious head trauma like a concussion. But they do signal a potential loss of brain tissue, something we could all probably do without.

NSE is an enzyme that deals with intracellular processes in neurons, and it's something found in all neurons. When a spike of NSE turns up in the blood, it could serve as a sign of brain damage. S100B is sometimes called "the clue of the brain," and some studies have suggested S100B is important for information processing in the brain. Like NSE, when this second biomarker turns up in the blood, it serves as a clue that cell damage is under way in the brain, explains lead study author and sleep researcher Christian Benedict, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience at Uppsala University in Sweden.

"Consequences of chronic neuronal damage vary among individuals and depend on the magnitude of the damage to the nerves and the specific nerves that are affected," Benedict explains. "For instance, if the hippocampus is afflicted—a brain region that is important for learning facts and events—you may observe memory deficits."

Population-based studies have shown that elderly people with self-reported sleep disturbances have an increased risk to develop Alzheimer's disease, compared to those without sleep problems, providing more evidence that sleep is integral for a healthy brain.

The study appeared in the journal Sleep.  

If you're having trouble sleeping, try some of the natural cures in Eat, Drink, and Be Sleepy! 5 Natural Sleep Aids.

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