Your brain literally ‘eats itself’ when you don’t get enough sleep, experts warn

Rob Waugh
·Contributor

Many of us – particularly those with young children – get through life on far too little sleep – and imagine we can just ‘catch up’ later.

But that might not actually be true – as new research suggests that a process built to ‘clear’ our brains of toxic byproducts can actually lead to brains ‘eating themselves’ when sleep deprived.

And the bad part is that recovering sleep might not actually reverse the damage.

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A team led by Michele Bellesi from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy found that ‘microglial’ cells in the brain – which are meant to clear out old and worn-out cells – go into overdrive when people lose sleep.

Instead of clearing out waste, the cells ‘prune’ healthy neurons and synaptic connections when people lose sleep.

Bellesi said, ‘We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.’

Researchers monitored groups of mice, looking for activity of ‘astrocytes’ – and found that in well-rested mice, the activity was present in 5.7% of the synapses, but in chronically sleep-deprived mice it was present in 13.5% of the synapses.