Lack of sleep may lead to loss of brain cells

Harold Mandel's picture

Lack of adequate sleep may lead to much more serious problems than previously thought. We like to think that we can catch up on a sleep deficit without any residual problems and move on with our lives with a totally refreshed feeling after a good nights sleep. However, new research has found this may not be true. In fact too much loss of sleep may actually lead to serious damage in the brain.

In our modern society a shortening of sleep times is often anticipated, even though the long-term consequences of extended wakefulness on the brain are not well understood, reports The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers have found that locus ceruleus neurons (LCns) are metabolically active neurons which fire at increased rates when there is sustained wakefulness. LCns are essential for optimal alertness. Researchers hypothesized that wakefulness is a metabolic stressor for LCns and that with long periods of wakefulness adaptive mitochondrial metabolic responses fail and injury follows.

Most people are well aware that not getting enough sleep causes an impairment of cognitive performance, reports The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Chronically sleep-deprived people, such as shift workers, students, and truckers, have a common strategy to simply to catch up on missed sleep on the weekends. What is considered common wisdom generally leads people to believe that you can catch up your sleep without any lasting negative effects.

However, in a new study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine disturbing evidence has emerged that chronic sleep loss may be more serious than previously thought and may actually lead to irreversible physical damage to and loss of brain cells, as covered in the publication of this research in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Sigrid Veasey, MD, an associate professor of Medicine and a member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, along with collaborators from Peking University, used a mouse model of chronic sleep loss. These researchers have determined that extended wakefulness is associated with injury to, and loss of, neurons that are essential for alertness and optimal cognition, which are the locus coeruleus (LC) neurons.

Veasey has said, "In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss. 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 a consideration of possible lasting injury in the brain." Veasey and his associates wanted to determine exactly whether chronic sleep loss injures neurons, whether or not the injury is reversible, and exactly which neurons are involved.

The researchers examined mice following periods of normal rest, short wakefulness, or extended wakefulness, which modeled a shift worker's typical sleep pattern. It was observed that after several days of shift worker sleep patterns, LC neurons in the mice began to display increased cell death. Veasey noted that this is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons. This study also demonstrated the significance of sleep for restoring metabolic homeostasis in mitochondria in the LC neurons and possibly other important brain areas, in order to ensure their optimal functioning during waking hours.


It has been stressed by Veasey that more work must be done to establish whether a similar phenomenon happens in people and to determine what durations of wakefulness may leave individuals at risk of neural injury. The adaptive response to sleep loss may be different in people with various conditions, such as:

1: Aging people

2: :People with diabetes

3: People who maintain a high-fat diet

4: People with a sedentary lifestyle

These people may be set up for increased risk of injury to their nerve cells due to lack of sleep.

Although clearly more research is needed to determine exactly what the effects of lack of sleep are on people without and with various health conditions, this study nevertheless provides another confirmation of a rapidly growing scientific consensus that sleep is more important than was previously thought. No one really ever thought prior to this study that the brain could be irreversibly damaged from sleep loss.

It has been my observation that in spite of new research confirming that loss of sleep can cause serious cognitive problems, many people still continue not to take the issue of needing adequate sleep seriously enough. It appears to be a contagion of modern lifestyles in a jet age and high technology age to think that we can keep safely going around the clock with a lot of caffeinated soda pop, coffee and energy drinks to pump up our energy levels. Now, we are beginning to understand that such a fast paced lifestyle without adequate sleep not only may lead to a heart attack, it may also severely undermine how well your brain works.

In order to drive the point home dealing with just how serious chronic lack of sleep may be these researchers at Penn should attempt to confirm their findings in people. A discovery that crashing on Saturday to make up for lost sleep may not be able to repair damaged brain cells may just be enough to scare more people into making certain getting adequate sleep is a significant part of their priority system in how they choose to live. And of course primary care physicians should always encourage their patients to get adequate sleep.



I feel so let down by the nhs right now. I've been telling this for years....but I'm not a dr so I'm continually ignored and told to take drugs and "try to get some sleep". Oh what a novel idea, u know I've never thought of trying to get to sleep before, that is because I'm a silly little girl that knows nothing about her own body when I've tried to get some sleep by going to psychatric hospitals i am kept awake by freezing cold rooms, bright lights, squeaky doors, other patients. AND STAFF snoring or. Talking, being hungry or thirsty but not being able to fulfill myself as kitchens are closed as its night time, dental pain - i continually asked to see someone but it never happened, and joint pain, oh yeh and hospital panic alarms ringing one night for OVER THREE HOURS i asked if these could be turned off .( other patients were screaming, crying, manically laughing, ruining their eardrums by turning up music on their headphones to the maximum) i was told no, and maintenance wouldn't come out this time of night. There was actually. A way of stopping the god awful noise. Not a politically correct way. But therres always a way for everything....when the sirens stopped i heard patients giving cheers of joy, crying in joy and thankfulness. The staff (one of which had a very appropriate. Name) also seemed happier. But they never sorted the dangling wires i had reported that were hanging from the ceiling. So i did it. You want a job done? You do it yourself, that's what I've learnt. the nhs is in denial. I must remember. Though that they are simply doing the best they can do. Lets just hope that by disseminating articles such as these they will finally realise there is a hell of a load of more stuff they need to know than what they were taught in med school. all iz well .(3 idiots, indian " bollywood" film) its all going in the book I'm writing oh, btw, i almost slept after i got punched in the face 3 or 4 times by a patient, this was a few minutes after she had already gone ' a bit funny' - why the hell was she then left unsupervised so she could attack me??! How effing thick ( or perhaps just overworked) are these staff - "carers"??!! Another time i was trapped in a kitchen by a woman who had just attempted to strangle a member of staff. Again why was she left alone to come threaten me??!!! i went to an introduction in art therapy lecture on Saturday it was so refreshing, inspirational, filled me with joy. It talked a lot about safe expression, communication, acceptance......not medication, ignorement, dehumanizing. Treatment of patients by staff (ignoring or confusing them for example)..... i apologize for all the mistakes but I'm a bipolar person suffering with insomnia right now, so there's the reason. Also in using my dads phone and its very weird and annoying. And I've given. Up trying to make corrections as it takes too long!!! Oh!!goodness!! Implusiveness, check, another trait of bipolar, or of people who aren't sleeping so well..... u know what I'm not bpd, bipolar, insomniac, aspergers borderline I AM ME, MY NAME IS DIAN - THATS RIGHT NO E, I DO ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO SAY AND SPELL MY OWN NAME. I've got some issues to sort - but i will do that with people who love, trust, and respect me, and by listening to my own body to figure out its immediate needs I DO NOT NEED 'NORMAL'MEDICATION OR ANY MORE STAYS IN HOSPITAL, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, KAY?!BYE LOL XXXX peace