How Sleeplessness Causes Our Mental Circuits to Overheat

We intuitively know that sleep is important, and a great deal of research on the health effects of sleeplessness backs up this belief.  But what exactly is going on in our brains when we don’t get enough shuteye?

Researchers tackled this question in a new study that suggests our brains become bundles of hyper-reactive nerve cells as the sleepless hours tick by.   In a sense, our noggins overheat when we deprive them of necessary down time--bad news for those of us who work into the wee hours.

The research team, led by Marcello Massimini of the University of Milan, delivered a stout magnetic current to study participants’ brains that set off a cascade of electrical responses throughout their nerve cells. The team then measured the strength of this electrical response in the frontal cortex, a brain region that’s involved in making executive decisions, using nodes attached to participants' scalps.  This procedure was completed a day before a night of sleep deprivation and repeated afterward.

The results: participants’ electrical responses were significantly stronger after a night of sleep deprivation than they were the previous day. The effect was corrected by one good night’s sleep.

Writing in Science News, Laura Sanders points out that the results reinforce the most widely held theory of why we sleep:

During waking hours, the brain accumulates connections between nerve cells as new things are learned. Sleep, the theory says, sweeps the brain of extraneous clutter, leaving behind only the most important connections.

The study is published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex.

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Posted on May 31, 2012 .