Sleep Deprivation and Its Effect on the Brain

By Veda Sanghi

Whether it be because of schoolwork or to watch your favorite Netflix show, we’ve all had days where we’ve stayed up late at night, way past our normal bedtime. We later force ourselves to stay awake with a cup of coffee and compensate for the lost sleep by taking naps during the daytime. However, this is often times not enough to make us feel completely awake, and so we continue through the day feeling drowsy, sluggish, and fatigued. Everyone is familiar with these feelings and are aware of the mental effects minimal sleep can have on us the next day. However, the consequences are proven to last longer than you would initially think, as just one night of disturbed sleep could possibly affect you for the rest of your life.

In order to maintain a healthy brain, it is essential to sleep for seven to nine hours each day. Both getting a short duration of sleep or having interrupted sleep cycles can lead to adverse effects on mental health. One-time disturbances, such as pulling an all-nighter, have smaller implications and are likely to just leave someone groggy and tired. However, over a longer period of time, those who consistently get under seven hours of sleep are at a higher risk of acquiring neurological problems later in life.

There are several short-term consequences of sleep deprivation on cognitive function. Concentration and problem-solving abilities are significantly lowered, whereas irritability and mood changes are increased. Being sleep deprived is also similar to being intoxicated, which slows attention span and judgement through the interference of communication between neurons. By reforming the neural connections between the brain’s prefrontal cortex and emotion-processing mechanisms, sleep deprivation causes people to lose their sense of rationality. With a drastic increase in emotions, people become more prone to make unreasonable decisions without regard to the consequences. It is also possible to accidently drift off into microsleep, a short period of sleep that occurs when trying to fight off drowsiness. During microsleep, certain areas of the brain are active while others are shut off, creating the half-conscious, half-asleep state. In addition, the brain consolidates memories during non-REM and REM sleep. During non-REM sleep, there is a transition from consciousness to sleep in which the muscles relax, heart rate slows, and body temperature drops. The stage of REM sleep occurs right afterwards, immobilizing the body while prompting the brain into an active state. Explicit memories, those that can be recalled automatically, are strengthened in the brain during non-REM sleep. On the other hand, implicit memories, which do not require conscious effort to remember, are consolidated during the REM sleep stage. Without proper sleeping habits, non-REM and REM stages are disturbed, thus making it difficult to correctly retain memories. During REM sleep, new ideas are formed after information is organized and consolidated through non-REM sleep. If these stages do not occur properly or at all, the ability to implement innovation and gain imaginative insight are significantly harmed. In addition to creativity, losing sleep can hinder cognitive flexibility, the brain’s ability to respond and adapt to changes in the environment. Quick-thinking and decision-making skills are oftentimes reduced, which can make the sleep-deprived unable to adapt to new circumstances.

Through a study conducted by Tim Althoff, a Stanford PhD student in computer science, the effects of sleep deprivation were measured on cognitive performance. Althoff examined keystroke timing among the subjects, who were told to perform the simple task of searching through the internet. There are multiple steps that the brain takes in order to do this: decide which keys to click on, understand the information that appears, and choose the best result to click on. Each of these steps requires the brain to process and handle information, and the amount of time it took to perform each step was heavily dependent on amount of sleep acquired. This correlation was proven as the results of the experiment displayed a 1.2 percent slower performance rate on keystroke timing with one night of sleep loss and 4.8 percent slower with two nights of sleep loss.

Not only does a lack of sleep have negative effects on our mental abilities and cognitive performance, but it can also have several implications on long-term health, most notably being a main factor leading to Alzheimer’s disease. During sleep, the brain disposes of waste through through the glymphatic system, a network of vessels that helps to get rid of unwanted materials from the central nervous system. These materials include insoluble groups of misfolded proteins that are formed in the brain, one being beta-amyloid proteins. When in a large amount, beta-amyloid proteins clump together, creating plaques around nerve cells. They are found in those with Alzheimer’s disease and disrupt cell communication, which then causes inflammation and loss of memory. Without sleep, the brain would be unable to clear out beta-amyloid proteins and other dangerous matter, thus leading to a greater risk of acquiring Alzheimer’s later in life.

Along with food, water, and shelter, sleep also acts as a basic, biological need that is crucial to live healthily. Without it, there can be severe repercussions both in the short and long term. Although consistently losing sleep can cause serious damage, an occasional night of sleeping late will not do much to affect the brain in the future. Severe sleep deprivation is a rare case that is not as common; however, it is best to get the recommended amount of sleep each night -- seven to nine hours -- to prevent any chance of having neurological problems later in life.

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Q: How can a consistent lack of sleep lead to Alzheimer’s disease?

A: Sleep provides a way for the brain to do a little housekeeping and clear up debris in the nervous system. Beta-amyloid proteins are one major type of waste products that can cause significant damage if not eliminated. Without sleep, the brain would be unable to remove these proteins, leading to a build up along neurons. This clumping of beta-amyloid proteins can create plaques, which interfere with cell-to-cell communication. This prevents the consolidation of memories and can ultimately lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Q: What can I do to fix my sleeping schedule?

A: In order to fix your sleep schedule and implement healthy lifestyle changes, it is important to start developing good sleep hygiene. Work on creating a sleep schedule, in which you set a time to wake up at and go to bed by every day. Make sleep a priority along with other important matters; it is easy to sacrifice sleep for work, school, or social-related activities, but do your best to stick to a routine. Start by making gradual adjustments instead of drastic changes to your schedule in order to ease into it, such as sleeping an hour earlier than usual. In addition, avoid caffeine and using electronics during the night, and try to engage in a relaxing activity to calm your mind just before going to bed.

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