Sleep deprivation linked to reduction in brain size


Mercy juniors catch up on sleep after a long week. According to WebMD, sleep deprivation and sleep disorders affect more than 70 million Americans, and one-third of all Americans display severe symptoms of insomnia (Photo Illustration: Danya Ziazadeh).

Every year, students find themselves juggling schoolwork, sports practices, clubs, extra-curriculars, jobs, time spent with family and friends, and yet still have to find the time to get a good night’s rest. Due to the 24-hour time limit in a given day, many students sacrifice sleep and, in turn, their health.

A recent study published in an online issue of Neurology suggests that a lack of sleep can reduce the size of one’s brain.

The study, involving 147 adults between the ages of 20 and 84, examined the correlation between sleep quality and the participants’ brain volume.

With the help of two MRI scans—one performed at the beginning of the study and one approximately 3 and a 1/2 years later—the  researchers found that those who suffered from sleep problems experienced a more rapid decline in brain volume during the course of the study.

Senior Kara Compton, who receives about 5 hours of sleep a night, recognizes that a lack of sleep can take a toll on her health.

“It’s very hard to focus and learn new material in school when I’m always so tired,” Compton said. “Also, I’ve realized that I’m not as patient with my friends and family when I don’t get enough rest.”

Exploring the influence of age, the investigators concluded that the reduction in the size of the brain was even more significant in participants over the age of 60.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the effects that poor sleeping patterns can have on the human brain. According to WebMD, sleep deprivation can lead to many harmful consequences and can contribute to brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. Short-term effects of sleep deprivation include memory and cognitive impairment, decreased performance and alertness, and a greater risk of automobile and occupational injuries. The long-term effects, which pose serious and permanent health consequences, include heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, and lasting mental impairment.

However, according to a study conducted by author Claire Sexton at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, “it is not yet known whether poor sleep quality is a cause or consequence of change in brain structure.”