Study: Sleep Deprivation May Lead to Irreversible Brain Cell Damage

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A new study published this week by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania illuminated evidence that too little sleep is potentially even more harmful than already thought. According to Forbes, researchers from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the university found that staying awake for too long destroyed brain cells in mice.

Their study showed that extended wakefulness damages a brain cell called locus ceruleus (LC) neurons, which play a role in keeping subjects awake and alert. The researchers’ latest study is significant because it is the first evidence that sleep loss can lead to brain cell damage, at least in mice. Sigrid Veasey, the lead author of the report and an associate professor of medicine at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, said to Forbes: “We now have evidence that sleep loss can lead to irreversible injury. This might be in a simple animal but this suggests to us that we are going to have to look very carefully in humans.”

Researchers at Penn came to their conclusion by looking at the brains of mice that were only allowed to sleep for four to five hours over a 24-hour time period. These sleep conditions were meant to mirror those experienced by late-night or shift workers who also tend to only get to sleep in those increments. According to Forbes, after the mice were put through three days of sleep deprivation, they experienced a 25 percent loss of LCs in a particular section of the brain stem. That led researchers to conclude that disrupted circadian rhythms can lead to degeneration of LC brain cells and apoptosis, or cell death.

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