Breakthrough Studies May Finally Explain Why We Sleep

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Breakthrough Studies May Finally Explain Why We Sleep
Photo – Stine Moe Engelsrud –

Sleep is an essential physiological process for humans and other animals. We spend a third of our lives sleeping and there are serious health consequences to sleep deprivation. However, science was somewhat in the dark as to why the negative effects associated with lack of sleep happen. Thanks to ongoing research in the science of sleep, we are now getting some insight into what sleep does for us. We’ve highlighted several of these studies below.

A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience presented the best evidence yet of what happens inside our brains when we sleep. [1] Led by Giulio Totoni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), the study highlights the physical toll brought on by sleep deprivation. It also provides an explanation of how memory function is supported while we snooze.

The research offers biological evidence on the age-old wisdom that if we want to remember, we need to sleep to forget. Sleep is considered important for flushing out potentially toxic proteins which our brains accumulate during the day. [2] Sleep provides a power cleanse for our brain, says the study. [3]

The University of Wisconsin study compared the synapses of mice brains following periods of sleep and sleep deprival. It found out that the synapses of sleeping mice were 18 percent smaller than the synapses in those which were awake. A shrinking brain might be scary, but it turns out to be a good thing, making more room the following day to make new memories, according to another study. [3] This work also hypothesized the importance of sleep in fine-tuning the lessons we’ve learned while awake.

Totoni and colleagues offered another theory on the negative effect of sleep deprivation on concentration and learning new information. People who lack sleep have reached the “full” capacity of their brain. Totoni reassured that people should not fear of having their experienced memories trimmed off during sleep. Some synapses, where the most important memories are restored, are protected.

Previous findings also corroborate the theory forwarded by the UW research. In 2013, the journal Science published an article that linked the restorative function of sleep to the removal of neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system. [4] The study also provided information on sleep’s effects on memory consolidation.

A 2000 study that first appeared in Brain Research also added to the growing evidence that sleep is vital for the consolidation of our memories. [6] The process of consolidation involves the conversion of short-term memory into long-term memory.

The studies discussed above opened more understandings on the causal role of a lack of sleep in making more people vulnerable to developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration. However, more studies need to be done to gather concrete evidence on the link between sleep deprivation and permanent cognitive impairment or dementia. It remains unclear how getting more sleep protects the brain or rescues it from the effects of a few sleepless nights.

One thing is for sure though – the natural sleep pattern of people becomes more fragmented as they age. It is imperative then to get in a good night’s sleep before its too late. Consider it an investment in the future.

Further Reading:

Can Poor Sleep Lead To Alzheimer’s?

Study Finds Lack Of Sleep May Lead To Brain Shrinkage

7 Serious Dangers Of Sleep Deprivation Plus 5 Natural Tips For Better Sleep


[1] Bellesi M et al. May 24, 2017. Journal of Neuroscience. Sleep Loss Promotes Astrocytic Phagocytosis and Microglial Activation in Mouse Cerebral Cortex.

[2] Kevin Loria. June 19, 2015. Business Insider. The scariest thing about bad sleep is what it does to your brain.

[3] Mander BA et al. June 1, 2015. Nature Neuroscience. ß-amyloid disrupts human NREM slow waves and related hippocampus-dependent memory consolidation.

[4] de Vivo L et al. February 3, 2017. Science. Ultrastructural evidence for synaptic scaling across the wake/sleep cycle.

[5] Xie L et al. October 18, 2013. Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain.

[6] Terrence Sejnowski and Alain Destexhe. December 15, 2000. Brain Research. Why do we sleep?

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