I’m sure most of us found it hard to sleep comfortably in last week’s heat and sleep deprivation, as everyone who has experienced it knows, impedes our ability to concentrate, to pay attention to our environment and to analyse information creatively.
We’ve also known for some time that sleep is essential in forming and consolidating memories and that it plays a central role in the formation of new brain connections and the pruning of old ones. A series of new studies, published in the journal Science, may at last be shedding light on another important aspect – ‘house-cleaning’. Sleep, it turns out, may play a crucial role in our brain’s physiological maintenance. As your body sleeps, the glymphatic system of your brain is quite actively playing the part of mental janitor: It’s clearing out all of the junk that has accumulated as a result of your daily thinking.
The problem is that MODERN society is increasingly ill equipped to provide our brains with the requisite cleaning time. The figures are stark. Some 80 percent of working adults suffer to some extent from sleep deprivation. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should sleep seven to nine hours. On average, we’re getting one to two hours less sleep a night than we did 50 to 100 years ago and 38 minutes less on weeknights than we did as little as 10 years ago. When our sleep is disturbed, whatever the cause, our cleaning system breaks down. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, Sigrid Veasey has been focusing on precisely how restless nights disturb the brain’s normal metabolism. What happens to our cognitive function when the trash piles up?
At the extreme end, the result could be the acceleration of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While we don’t know whether sleep loss causes the disease, or the disease itself leads to sleep loss — what Dr. Veasey calls a “classic chicken-and-egg” problem — we do know that the two are closely connected. Along with the sleep disturbances that characterize these diseases, there is a buildup of the types of proteins that the glymphatic system normally clears out during regular sleep, like beta-amyloids and tau, both associated with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
“To me,” says Dr. Veasey, “that’s the most compelling part of the research. That the clearance for these is dramatically reduced from prolonged wakefulness.” If we don’t sleep well, we may be allowing the very things that cause neural degeneration to pile up unchecked.” – So do your best to get a good night’s sleep every night!