A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine sheds new light on the relationship between sleep and brain function. While it is known by many that lack of sleep (sleep deprivation) can reduce cognitive function, the latest research suggests that continued lack of sleep, also known as extended wakefulness, will cause permanent brain damage.
Prior to this research, popular medicine believed that the effects of lack of sleep could be diminished by catching up the missed sleep. The study suggests that this is not the case.
Dr. Sigrid Veasey, MD, associate Professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, explained the motivation for the study:
“In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss,” Veasey says. “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.”
Using mice, scientist from UPenn and Peking University were able to isolate a specific protein affected by long term sleep loss. This protein, Sirtuin type 3 (SirT3) is essential to neurons, but does not function correctly in long term periods without sleep. This lack of the SirT3 protein caused cell death.
The study has only been done on mice and does not take into consideration other factors such as aging, sedentary lifestyles, or diabetes. It does suggest however, that individuals with reduced SirT3 function initially, might be more susceptible to brain damage.
Shift workers, students, and truckers are believed to be most likely to suffer from chronic sleep deprivation.
Further research is planned to determine potential therapies for individuals suffering from reduced SirT3 function. Dr. Veasey discussed his plans following the conclusion of the initial study:
“Particularly intriguing is, that the findings suggest that mitochondria in LC neurons respond to sleep loss and can adapt to short-term sleep loss but not to extended wake. This raises the possibility that somehow increasing SirT3 levels in the mitochondria may help rescue neurons or protect them across chronic or extended sleep loss. “
The study was conducted on March 18th and published in The Journal of Neuroscience.