Neuroscience Says This Is What Happens To Your Brain When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Let’s start with a story. See if it sounds familiar. But be warned: there is a surprising twist at the end.

It’s about an entrepreneur. We call her Sally. Like many entrepreneurs, Sally sometimes becomes over-committed and overworked.

For example, one week she has an important customer presentation, plus a new product rollout and a big deadline for a project that can really make a difference to her business.

At the same time, she balances life: family, fitness, friends, health and self-care.

Something has to admit, and it’s her sleep schedule that comes first. She stays up late, gets up early, burns the candle at both ends to get things done.

Then the weekend comes and she collapses: sleep in, maybe go to bed early. Sunday evening she feels rested, refreshed and rejuvenated – ready to take on the new week.

Now for the surprising twist.

It comes from an eye-catching new article in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, which brings together decades of research about what happens to our brains when we build up a sleep debt and then try to make up for it.

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In short, it’s not what we think is happening — and not what we’ve been taught to think over the years.

Instead, according to authors Zachary Zamore and Sigrid C. Veasey of the Chronobiology and Sleep Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, there are at least three crucial things to know:

First, when we build up a sleep debt, we lose some of the subjective ability to judge how that lack of sleep affects us. Second, although we don’t realize it, objective tests show that we continue to have “deficiencies…in wakefulness and episodic memory” even after “2-3 nights of recovery sleep.” Key: The deficits persist even when we feel “less tired” after recovery sleep. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, studies suggest that this ongoing sleep loss — even as we try to catch up — may lead to “increased susceptibility to neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease … and Parkinson’s disease ( PD).”

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This is a very interesting and alarming magazine article, at almost 10,000 words. Among other things, it shows how difficult and crucial it is to study what happens when people become sleep deprived:

Difficult, because of the ethical and practical considerations. (How can you measure sleep deprivation without causing it, and how can you cause it despite its significant negative effects?) Crucial, because, as Zamore and Veasey admit, “sleep disruption is an inevitable event in modern societies.” (Just knowing that sleep deprivation is bad for you doesn’t change the fact that sometimes we run out of hours in the day and have to make tough choices.)

Incidentally, it wouldn’t be a challenge to come up with many other studies describing additional negative effects of sleep deprivation. I’ve written about many of these:

But as much as I hate to admit it, even though I’m the person who wrote all these articles, I’m also the person who gives up sleep to write this article now because I couldn’t find the time to finish everything to get done during the day.

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See, most of us know what we need to do to get reasonably healthy and live long enough to achieve the things we aspire to in life.

And, as I write in my free ebook Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand and Train Your Brain for Life, there’s nothing more fascinating than the human brain and the unexpected ways it works. Sleep is always at the top of the list.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not’s.

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