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Sleep deprivation impairs the brain, potentially causing neurological disorders

Sleep is crucial for our well-being, and a sleepless night causes groggy, irritable feelings that make it difficult to function properly the next day. But recent scientific discoveries suggest that the repercussions of sleep deprivation extend far beyond temporary discomfort. 

There is mounting evidence that persistent sleep loss can pave the way for devastating neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

A study published by the American Chemical Society confirms that not only does a lack of sleep make you feel awful, but also impairs the brain. 

“What’s more, sleep loss over long periods can even increase risk for Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases,” noted the researchers.

Focus of the study 

Historically, scientists have observed a correlation between sleep deprivation and neuronal damage within the hippocampus – a crucial brain region that governs memory and learning. 

Prior research has succeeded in pinpointing certain factors that bridge the gap between sleep deficiency and brain damage. Yet, the specific roles these factors play in cognitive functions across larger animal groups remain uncertain.

For the current study, a team of experts led by Fuyi Xu and Jia Mi set out to investigate the precise mechanisms through which sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on our gray matter.

Cognitive dysfunction

“Sleep loss is associated with cognitive dysfunction. However, the detailed mechanisms remain unclear,” wrote the researchers.

“In this study, we established a para-chlorophenylalanine (PCPA)-induced insomniac mouse model with impaired cognitive function. Mass-spectrometry-based proteomics showed that the expression of 164 proteins was significantly altered in the hippocampus of the PCPA mice.”

How the research was conducted

The team subjected mice to two days of sleep deprivation and assessed their ability to navigate a maze and recognize unfamiliar objects. Next, the researchers isolated proteins from the hippocampi of the sleep-deprived mice to pinpoint any variations in their abundance. 

By comparing these findings with data from similar, but well-rested, mouse strains, they hoped to single out the most significant proteins.

What the researchers learned 

The experts made a significant discovery: a decline in the protein pleiotrophin (PTN) in the sleep-deprived mice. 

Further RNA analysis revealed the molecular cascade instigated by a PTN deficit, resulting in hippocampal cell death. Amplifying the implications of this finding, the team identified that PTN also plays a pivotal role in human neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Study implications 

This research has illuminated a previously unknown mechanism, highlighting the protective role of sleep in maintaining optimal brain function. 

According to the researchers, their findings suggest that tracking PTN levels might offer valuable insights into cognitive deterioration stemming from chronic insomnia.

More about sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a common phenomenon in today’s fast-paced world. Defined as the lack of sufficient sleep to function optimally, sleep deprivation can have serious short-term and long-term consequences. 

Causes of sleep deprivation

Lifestyle choices such as binge-watching, late-night work, or studying often cut into sleep hours.

New parents, in particular, might experience sleep deprivation due to the demands of infant care.

Shift work, especially night shifts, can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm.

In addition, some medical conditions – such as Insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome – can make it hard for people to sleep.

Stress is another cause of sleep deprivation. Worries about work, school, health, or relationships can make it difficult to fall asleep.

Short-term effects

  • Cognitive impairment: Decreased attention span, slowed reaction time, and impaired decision-making.
  • Mood changes: Increased irritability, mood swings, and heightened emotional responses.
  • Physical effects: Fatigue, eye strain, and a weakened immune system.
  • Memory issues: Difficulty with memory consolidation, leading to forgetfulness.

Long-term effects

  • Chronic health issues: Increased risk of conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Mental health disorders: Prolonged sleep deprivation can contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
  • Decreased libido: A consistent lack of sleep can lead to reduced interest in sexual activity.
  • Aging: Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to premature aging signs, including fine lines, dark circles under the eyes, and lackluster skin.
  • Weight gain: Sleep deprivation can cause hormonal imbalances, leading to increased appetite and subsequent weight gain.

The study is published in the Journal of Proteome Research.

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