There is evidence that when the brain runs out of sleep, it literally begins to “eat itself”

How do you feel? A little groggy maybe? Well when you have read the following, you will probably want to take a nap. Research indicates that your head is home to a zombie capable of cannibalism when you deprive him of sleep. That is true. Your brain will start to devour when it is tired.

An in-depth study on sleep by Michele Bellesi of the Polytechnic University of Marche made this alarming discovery by researching the exact role of sleep on the body. During sleep, our brain changes state. This condition helps erase the toxic byproducts of neural activity that accumulate during our busy day.

There is evidence that when the brain runs out of sleep, it literally begins to “eat itself”

This process also begins to occur in a brain that is chronically deprived of sleep. The study found that the brains of people who are chronically tired tend to erase a large number of neurons and synaptic connections while they are awake. And trying to catch up on sleep may not be enough to reverse the zombie-like effects. (Here’s an interesting Harvard study that says that even an extra 10 hours may not be enough to counteract the effects of chronic sleep loss, which is just as alarming as the self-eating brain).

Bellesi and his team have studied the effects of sleep deprivation in mice. They compared the brains of well-rested mice to those that remained awake for long hours. A separate group of mice was kept awake for five days in a row to mimic a Monday after a festive weekend.

They studied glial cells of the brain and one in particular, which is called the astrocyte. This astrocyte rid the brain of unnecessary synapses. Another type called microglial cell looks for damaged cells.

Bellisi’s team found that after undisturbed sleep, astrocytes are active in only 6% of mice. But astrocytes were more active in sleep-deprived mice. Those who lost 8 hours of sleep had 8% of activity but those who were chronically deprived had almost 14% of activity!

“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally devoured by astrocytes because of lack of sleep,” Bellesi told New Scientist.

All of these data indicate that chronic sleep loss causes astrocytes to overwork. They begin to clean the brain of connections. The team also found that the microglial cells of sleep-deprived mice were also more active and this is even more worrisome.

“We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of neurodegeneration,” said Bellesi.

Well, it’s not good. Especially since other studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation increases the “plaques in the brain” that have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. So lack of sleep is very bad for us. It’s probably time to make it a priority for your health, such as diet and exercise.

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