The Impact Of Sleep Loss: Can It Affect The Size Of Your Brain?

sleep deprivation
Poor sleep quality has been linked to a decline in brain volume. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Lacking sleep can have quite an influence over your health; studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to poor memory skills, decreased quality of life, and impaired performance and alertness in accomplishing tasks. Not to mention a higher chance of developing high blood pressure, stress, attention deficit disorder, depression, and even obesity.

Now, researchers are beginning to examine the impact sleep deprivation might have on brain size. In a new study out of the University of Oxford, scientists examined 147 adults who were aged 20 to 84. They analyzed the link between lack of sleep and brain volume, finding that on average sleeping difficulties were associated with the “rapid decline in brain volume.” All of the participants underwent two MRI brain scans — about 3.5 years apart — and completed questionnaires about how they slept: whether they had a difficult time falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping a solid amount of hours every night. About 35 percent of the participants were shown to have poor sleep quality, according to the authors.

But the researchers still aren’t sure whether they can determine from this study that people with low sleep quality will indeed experience a decline in brain volume. Though there is a link, there is no telling if it’s a causation or just a correlation. What they did find, however, was that rapid decline in brain volume was more strongly apparent in people over the age of 60.

“It is not yet known whether poor sleep quality is a cause or consequence of changes in brain structure,” study author Claire E. Sexton of the University of Oxford said in the press release. “There are effective treatments for sleep problems, so future research needs to test whether improving people’s quality of sleep could slow the rate of brain volume loss. If that is the case, improving people’s sleep habits could be an important way to improve brain health.”

This is just another study that suggests how important sleep is for the brain. Sleep is something of the “brain’s housekeeper,” due to its ability to “cleanse” the brain and repair it. A recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that chronic sleep deprivation could be quite serious in that it causes your brain to lose neurons.

“In general, we’ve always assumed full recovery of cognition following short- and long-term sleep loss,” Dr. Sigrid Veasey, an author of the UPenn study and associate professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, said in a press release. “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… This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons.”

So give sleep a chance to be your “brain’s housekeeper,” because it is likely far more important to your brain — and overall health — than you think.

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