What happens to your brain cells when you sleep — and when you don’t

Posted on March 18, 2013 by

Fifty million Americans have some sort of major sleep disorder and many go undiagnosed. I am one of them. Over the last year, I have found myself waking up precisely at 1 am each night, unable to go back to sleep without first ambulating to a different location in the house and reading or watching TV for a while (usually Friends on demand sans ads). At first I thought my new pattern of non-sleep might be caused by some additional pressures at work or a nutritional deficit but as time when on I came to believe that it was probably something cyclical, perhaps resulting from reduced hormones of some sort, in part because my waking was so consistent, to the minute when I would wake up. So I have taken to reading the latest research concerning sleep and what it is. No one has an exacting handle on what sleep does. However, there has been some excellent and definitive work on what happens to the molecules in your brain cells when you have too little sleep. A caveat, the research has been in animals so far and not in humans. Apparently, when sleep deprivation occurs, a normal process of “protein folding” is disrupted. Proteins, scientists say, are the workhorses of the cell, carrying out the vital functions and in order to do so, they must fold into a complex three dimensional structure. Now I warn you, its easy to get lost in this arcane world of proteins much work is being done as it is thought to be related to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed a study published last week said that most people with early Alzheimer’s are sleep deprived. This concerned me and I have been watching to see what I forget. Proteins are born resembling a string of beads. Then, they fold to become brain, blood and bone. Understanding of the exact purposes of this process are not known but, scientists have observed that when an animal is sleep deprived, the folding of proteins is disrupted. Actually, this factoid made me feel a bit better because it helped to verify that my sleep deprivation had a biological component, negating the theory that the cause of my insomnia is solely psychological. In a recent study, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Sandia Labs found out that proteins can be divided into water loving proteins and water hating proteins and that the folding is allowed as these two groups balance off each other. So when we don’t sleep, our cells get stressed because their proteins aren’t folding correctly and there is no replenishment of the cells to allow them to function during the normal wakeful hours. This is overly simplistic but that’s what the latest studies say in essence. In the brains of rats, chronic sleep loss was shown to lead to cell death in various parts of the brain. That was disturbing and my knowing it will likely result in more sleep loss. Other studies are beginning to get at the process of recharging the cells during sleep, the suggestion being that our brains are like an attic with limited space and each night, by weeding out unneeded information, we make room for learning the next day. I like this metaphor as it is easy to understand and seems true in my case. I can only take in so much in one day. I will continue this another day as it is time for my nap.

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