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Insufficient Sleep Kills Brain Cells, Mouse Study Shows

Last updated Sept. 22, 2015

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

A new study in mice that long-term sleep deprivation drains the brain of power even after days of recovery sleep and could be a sign of lasting brain injury. Researchers believe that cramming in extra hours of shut-eye may not make up for those lost pulling all-nighters is not worth it.


A new study from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that long-term sleep deprivation drains the brain of power even after days of recovery sleep and could be a sign of lasting brain injury.

Published in the journal Neuroscience, the researchers found that prolonged wakefulness damages a particular type of brain cell called the locus ceruleus (LC) neurons, which play an important role in keeping us attentive and conscious.

“We now have evidence that sleep loss can lead to irreversible injury,” says lead author Sigrid Veasey, M.D., associate professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. ”This might be in a simple animal, but this suggests to us that we are going to have to look very carefully in humans.”

The researchers collaborated with colleagues at Peking University and observed the brains of mice who were subjected to sleep conditions similar to late night or shift work and found that disrupted circadian rhythms resulted in the deterioration of LC brain cells and cell death.

When the mice lost some sleep, the nerve cells responded by making more of a protein, called sirtuin type 3, to revitalize and protect them. 

After a few days on the “shift work” sleep scenario, the reaction of making more sirtuin type 3 shut down and the cells died at an accelerated rate.

"The mice lose 25% of these neurons," Veasey said.

Veasey says that more work needs to be done in investigating these effects on humans, but we are sure to believe that cramming in extra hours of shut-eye may not make up for those lost pulling all-nighters is not worth it.

Additional Resource:

Zhang, J., Zhu, Y., Zhan, G., Fenik, P., Panossian, L., Wang, M. M., ... & Veasey, S. (2014). Extended wakefulness: Compromised metabolics in and degeneration of locus ceruleus neurons. The Journal of Neuroscience34(12), 4418-4431.

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: March 25, 2014
Last updated: Sept. 22, 2015