Virtually all living organisms sleep, or its equivalent. But it has been a puzzle why. Surely spending a big part of every day unconscious can’t have much survival value. But scientists have now discovered that sleep is when our bodies repair themselves and when our brain is rejuvenated and, literally, cleansed.
Time has a fascinating article on the subject, linked and excerpted after the jump. Type-A personalities who brag about how little they sleep so they can work more, party animals who stay up all night, commuters who stay up late and get up early, and college students in general would do well to read it.
From Alice Park, The Power of Sleep | TIME:
When the lights go out, our brains start working–but in an altogether different way than when we’re awake. At night, a legion of neurons springs into action, and like any well-trained platoon, the cells work in perfect synchrony, pulsing with electrical signals that wash over the brain with a soothing, hypnotic flow. Meanwhile, data processors sort through the reams of information that flooded the brain all day at a pace too overwhelming to handle in real time. The brain also runs checks on itself to ensure that the exquisite balance of hormones, enzymes and proteins isn’t too far off-kilter. And all the while, cleaners follow in close pursuit to sweep out the toxic detritus that the brain doesn’t need and which can cause all kinds of problems if it builds up.
This, scientists are just now learning, is the brain on sleep. It’s nature’s panacea, more powerful than any drug in its ability to restore and rejuvenate the human brain and body. Getting the recommended seven to eight hours each night can improve concentration, sharpen planning and memory skills and maintain the fat-burning systems that regulate our weight. If every one of us slept as much as we’re supposed to, we’d all be lighter, less prone to developing Type 2 diabetes and most likely better equipped to battle depression and anxiety. We might even lower our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and cancer.
The trouble is, sleep works only if we get enough of it. While plenty of pills can knock us out, none so far can replicate all of sleep’s benefits, despite decades’ worth of attempts in high-tech pharmaceutical labs.
Which is why, after long treating rest as a good-if-you-can-get-it obligation, scientists are making the case that it matters much more than we think. . . .
All organs in the body use energy, and in the process, they spew out waste. Most take care of their garbage with an efficient local system, recruiting immune cells like macrophages to gobble up the garbage and break it down or linking up to the network of vessels that make up the lymph system, the body’s drainage pipes.
The brain is a tremendous consumer of energy, but it’s not blanketed in lymph vessels. So how does it get rid of its trash? “If the brain is not functioning optimally, you’re dead evolutionarily, so there must be an advantage to exporting the garbage to a less critical organ like the liver to take care of it,” says [Dr. Maiken] Nedergaard.Indeed, that’s what her research shows. She found that an army of previously ignored cells in the brain, called glial cells, turn into a massive pump when the body sleeps. During the day, glial cells are the unsung personal assistants of the brain. They cannot conduct electrical impulses like other neurons, but they support them as they send signals zipping along nerve networks to register a smell here and an emotion there. For decades, they were dismissed by neuroscientists because they weren’t the actual drivers of neural connections.
But Nedergaard found in clinical trials on mice that glial cells change as soon as organisms fall asleep. The difference between the waking and sleeping brain is dramatic. When the brain is awake, it resembles a busy airport, swelling with the cumulative activity of individual messages traveling from one neuron to another. The activity inflates the size of brain cells until they take up 86% of the brain’s volume.
When daylight wanes and we eventually fall asleep, however, those glial cells kick into action, slowing the brain’s electrical activity to about a third of its peak frequency. During those first stages of sleep, called non-REM (rapid eye movement), the firing becomes more synchronized rather than haphazard. The repetitive cycle lulls the nerves into a state of quiet, so in the next stage, known as REM, the firing becomes almost nonexistent. The brain continues to toggle back and forth between non-REM and REM sleep throughout the night, once every hour and a half.
At the same time, the sleeping brain’s cells shrink, making more room for the brain and spinal cord’s fluid to slosh back and forth between them. “It’s like a dishwasher that keeps flushing through to wash the dirt away,” says Nedergaard. This cleansing also occurs in the brain when we are awake, but it’s reduced by about 15%, since the glial cells have less fluid space to work with when the neurons expand.
This means that when we don’t get enough sleep, the glial cells aren’t as efficient at clearing the brain’s garbage. That may push certain degenerative brain disorders that are typical of later life to appear much earlier.
Both Nedergaard’s and Veasey’s work also hint at why older brains are more prone to developing Alzheimer’s, which is caused by a buildup of amyloid protein that isn’t cleared quickly enough.
“There is much less flow to clear away things in the aging brain,” says Nedergaard. “The garbage system picks up every three weeks instead of every week.” And like any growing pile of trash, the molecular garbage starts to affect nearby healthy cells, interfering with their ability to form and recall memories or plan even the simplest tasks.
The consequences of deprived sleep, says Dr. Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, are “scary, really scary.”