You have probably heard something about hitting your head and losing brains cells. Most of us have laughed that off, but the reality is that our brain cells are not something that we are born with and will die with and while hitting your head will only result in loss of brain cells if you hit it very hard, there are many ways that you can lose brain cells. One of these is through lack of sleep.
Dr. Sigrid Veasey, an associate medical professor at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study that looked at what long periods of sleeplessness can do to the locus ceruleus (LC) neurons. These are the neurons that help with alertness and cognitive processes, in other words they are pretty important.
Using a mouse model, Veasey and her team found that the brain responds to any short-term sleep deprivation by protecting these LC neurons from damage. However, during long-term periods of sleep deprivation the brain was not able to continue this protection. They looked at mice after they had had normal rest, after a period of short wakefulness, and after an extended wakefulness in an attempt to recreate the sleep life of the average shift worker.
Dr Veasey and colleagues found that while a single night’s missed sleep can be easily regained, the chronic disruption of a person’s natural sleep patterns, such as suffered by shift workers, can cause permanent harm to these neurons. Veasey says that “In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss. 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. We wanted to figure out exactly whether chronic sleep loss injures neurons, whether the injury is reversible, and which neurons are involved.”
During short-term periods the team saw that the LC neurons upregulating a protein called SirT3 to help them protect themselves against any metabolic injury. Over an extended period, the mouse neuron was no longer able to protect itself. The SirT3 dissipated over time and the cells began to die. Around one quarter of these LC neurons died after long periods of sleeplessness.
As Veasy said, “This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons. Particularly intriguing is, that the findings suggest that mitochondria in LC neurons respond to sleep loss and can adapt to short-term sleep loss but not to extended wake. This raises the possibility that somehow increasing SirT3 levels in the mitochondria may help rescue neurons or protect them across chronic or extended sleep loss.”
Hopefully this study can offer some future help to those who have to go without sleep for a long time. They believe that by focusing on SirT3 they may be able to develop something that can help
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