Is Your Sleepy Brain Eating Itself?

We’ve all been told by a teacher not to pull an “all-nighter” before a test because sleep deprivation is bad for the brain, but it turns out it may be worse than we thought. Until now, conventional wisdom was told us that it negatively affects how subjects perform on a short term basis, but now scientists at the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy have discovered that sleep deprivation can have long term effects.

Michele Bellesi, lead scientist, says that when you go without sleep for a long period of time, cells called glial and microglial cells go into overdrive. Think of these as the brain’s gardeners, pruning unnecessary synapses and brain cells where needed, keeping everything nice and tidy. However, when the rats in Bellesi’s study didn’t get enough sleep, the glial and microglial cells worked overtime, trimming and throwing away unused brain matter. This might be good in the short run, because it could potentially speed up how fast your groggy, tired brain works, but they didn’t stop when the rats slept. In fact, they worked about twice as long, meaning their sleepy brains were literally eating themselves.


This could be the key to how chronic sleep deprivation is connected to brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In patients with neurological disorders such as these, microglial cells are known to be over active for longer-than-normal periods of time. It could be that a lifetime of sleep deprivation has caused this, but Bellesi is reluctant to make assumptions. He intends to investigate further to nail down just how long this over-activity lasts in rats, and then in humans.