As the human brain still has many mysteries left to uncover, a team of researchers just discovered that the quiet hours or more precisely sleep loss, affect it more than initially believed.
The scientists noted that the mammalian brain goes through the process of cleaning itself even when awake but sleep deprived. However, this also takes place in overdrive during such periods. On the long term, this could also potentially make the brain turn against itself.
This new research was carried out by researchers from the Italian Marche Polytechnic University. Led by Michele Bellesi, they released their study results in the Journal of Neuroscience. The team analyzed the sleep cleaning process in the brains of mice split into separate groups. These were either well rested, sleep deprived, severely sleep deprived, or just awoken periodically.
Sleep Loss Associated with an Overdrive in Brain Cleaning
Like everywhere else in the body, the brain can renew and refresh its cells. It does so during the night, as it removes any leftovers from the day’s neural activity. This process is carried out with help from glial or support cells.
Old or worn out cells are removed by microglial cells in a process named phagocytosis or the Greek for “to devour”. Astrocytes help by cleaning up unnecessary brain synapses, as their reshape and refresh the brain’s ‘wiring’.
Still, sleep loss was noted to heighten these processes, which can also seemingly turn the brain against itself.
“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss,” states Bellesi.
The research team observed the astrocytes’ and microglial cells’ activity across the four mice groups. In the well-rested one, astrocytes were present in 5.7 percent of the synapses.
But in the sleep loss groups, these values came up to 8.4 percent and even 13.5 percent. According to the researchers, this was not necessarily a bad thing. Astrocytes tend to clean away the most heavily used and oldest connections.
However, the team also noted an increased microglial cell activity, which is definitely worrisome, according to them. Other studies associated this process to various neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Now, the scientists will look to determine if getting enough rest can actually help reverse the effects of an extended period of sleep loss. They will also look to establish if these same processes are taking place in this exact way in the human brain as well.
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