When you’re sleep deprived, your brain kicks in and starts doing what it needs to do to help you recover.
But when you chronically lose sleep, your brain may try so hard to repair itself that it ends up being damaged in other ways. That’s because it starts churning out chemicals that promote microglial activation. Microglia are cells that serve as the brain’s immune system.
After just a few hours of sleep deprivation, the activation of microglia “may promote the housekeeping of heavily used and strong synapses in response to the increased neuronal activity of extended wake,” the authors of a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience explain in their research abstract.
However, while chronic sleep deprivation also activates microglia, it does so “in the absence of overt signs of neuroinflammation, suggesting that like many other stressors, extended sleep disruption may lead to a state of sustained microglia activation, perhaps increasingly the brain’s susceptibility to other forms of damage,” the abstract concludes.
Reason for Sleep Discovered a Few Years Ago
A study published in October, 2013 in the journal Science finally explained why humans sleep. For years, it has been considered an evolutionary flaw by some.
In an interview with Healthline News, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Translational Neuromedicine, said, “Nerve cells are very sensitive cells. Similar to fish in a dirty tank, they will get sick and die if the brain is not cleared.”
Dr. Stephen Rasmus, director of Sleep Disorders Center at Genesis Health System in Davenport, Iowa, said lack of sleep may correlate to Alzheimer’s Disease.
“This is something that is a tiptoe into the mystery of why we need sleep and how this correlates with diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease,” Rasmus said. “What would really be amazing is to wonder where we will be 100 years from now. Maybe there will be a way to flush out these chemicals. You can say, I’m really tired, maybe I’ll hook up to this little thing here, and I’ll be fine in 15 minutes.”
In a 2015 study, researchers said it is imperative that the role of microglia be further studied.
“It is now urgent to further investigate the multifaceted roles of these cells in Alzheimer’s Disease by outlining the complex regulatory molecular mechanisms that govern the balance between their beneficial and detrimental effects in a context-dependent manner, especially during the different stages of the disease’s development and age.”
Related: Better Sleep May Lead to Better Sex
A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”