LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — Not getting enough shut-eye? It may be a bigger deal than you think.

A new study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine suggests that chronic sleep loss may lead to irreversible brain damage through loss of brain cells.

“In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short-term and long-term sleep loss,” according to Sigrid Veasey, MD , an Associate Professor of Medicine at Penn.

“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.”

She and other researchers aimed to figure out whether chronic sleep loss injures neurons, and if so, which neurons. They also wanted to know whether the injury is reversible.

To conduct the study, lab mice were examined following periods of normal rest, short wakefulness, or extended wakefulness — this was modeled after a shift worker’s typical sleep pattern.

After several days, LC neurons in the mice showed reduced SirT3, a protein that’s important for mitochondrial energy production and helps protect neurons from metabolic injury. Neurons can be described as cells that transmit information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system

The mice lost 25 percent of their LC neurons.

“This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons,” Veasey says.

She notes that additional studies are needed to determine whether a similar phenomenon occurs in humans, and to see how many consecutive waking hours could put people at risk of brain injury.


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