Pulling an all-nighter can make you feel mentally and physically exhausted, but chronic sleep deprivation can actually prompt your brain to eat itself. Yes, you read that correctly. As New Scientist reports, the brain cells that are responsible for destroying and digesting worn-out cells go into overdrive in the brains of sleep-deprived mice, suggesting the same could be true for humans.
"In the short term, this might be beneficial—clearing potentially harmful debris and rebuilding worn circuitry might protect healthy brain connections," study author Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy told the magazine. "But it may cause harm in the long term and could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders."
Bellesi and team analyzed the brains of well-rested mice, mice that had been kept awake for an extra eight hours, and mice that were kept awake for five days in a row. The chronically sleep-deprived mice saw highly active astrocytes cells in their brains, which are the ones responsible for "housekeeping." "We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss," he explains. Microglial activity was also elevated, which is "a more worrying find," as excessive microglial has been linked to a range of brain disorders.
Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean the same thing for humans. What's more, more research has to be done into whether getting more sleep will protect or rescue the brain from the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.
Read up on what every good sleeper does before bed, and share your thoughts on the new study below.