It's long been believed that a lack of sleep could be bad for the brain. But a new study offers a more colorful, yet dire description of this consequence — it could turn the brain into a "cannibal" of sorts, with synapses being "eaten" by other brain cells, and even increase the chances of chronic sleep loss sufferers acquiring Alzheimer's disease later in life.
Not getting enough shut-eye at night might not sound as bad as it seems at first, according to a report from New Scientist. Healthy brain connections initially may be protected once brain cells consume their worn-out equivalents. But study lead author Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University (Italy) believes that a chronic lack of sleep may have some dangerous long-term effects on the human brain, including a higher risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.
Together with his fellow researchers, Bellesi came up with this theory after conducting experiments on mice. Multiple groups of mice were compared, with one group being forced to stay awake for eight hours longer than usual, and a second group getting as much sleep as they desired. A third group was forced to stay up for five straight days, in an effort to simulate how a chronic lack of sleep could wreak havoc on the brain.
The researchers focused their attention on glial cells, which, according to New Scientist, serve as the brain's "housekeeping system." Specifically, Bellesi's team was interested in astrocytes, a type of glial cell that removes unneeded synapses to refresh the brain's wiring, as well as microglial cells, which work by "prowling" the brain for damaged cells and other waste.