Losing sleep can lead to brain damage, scientists warn

BY Justin Scuiletti  March 19, 2014 at 5:48 PM EST
Photo by Flickr user D Sharon Pruitt

New research suggests chronic sleep loss can lead to a loss of brain cells. Photo by Flickr user D Sharon Pruitt

A sleepless night can cause a lot more than a sluggish day, a new study warns.

Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience Tuesday claims that chronic sleep loss can lead to a permanent loss of brain cells — nullifying any hope to “make up” for lost sleep.

Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine studied lab mice while rotating them through periods of rest, short and extended wakefulness — similar to the day-to-day sleep patterns of shift workers. After three days of testing, they found that the mice had experienced increased cell death and lost 25 percent of the neurons essential for “alertness and optimal cognition” — a result researchers fear could also happen in humans.

“In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss,” said Dr. Sigrid Veasey, associate professor of Medicine at UPenn and part of the research team. “But some of the research in humans has shown that attention span and several other aspects of cognition may not normalize even with three days of recovery sleep, raising the question of lasting injury in the brain.”

Further research is planned to determine if humans are susceptible to the observed brain damage through extended periods of wakefulness, and if brain damage could be linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.