A lack of sleep makes your brain eat itself, new research suggests

New study suggests chronic sleep-deprivation causes overactivity in the brain’s self-cleaning mechanism, leading to the destruction of healthy cells.

Exhausted
(ADRIAN SAMPSON)

Weird, shape-shifting glial cells are your brain's caretakers. They're the first responders in the event of a head injury, and — having colonized every nook and cranny of the place while you were still in the womb — they're your cranial custodians. These tentacled helpers clear out the junk and are vital to keeping your brain smoothly humming along. But now a new study has discovered something startling about them: they eat healthy brain cells in mice who don't get enough shut-eye. And maybe in us, too.

The study, by Michele Bellesi, Luisa De Vivo, Mattia Chini, and Chiara Chirelli, looked at two kinds of glial cells in mice:

  • astrocytes are like gardeners for your neural synapses, pruning away bits you don't use to continually keep your wiring tidy and efficient.
  • microglial cells are the garbage collectors, constantly on the lookout for used-up cells and other stuff that could get in the way.
  • There were three groups of mice in the study. The first group could sleep as long as they wanted, the second group was kept awake an extra eight hours before being allowed to sleep, and the third were kept away for five days to mimic chronic sleep loss. The researchers found that both kinds of glial cells put in destructive overtime in tired mice's brains.

    Astrocyte (GERRY SHAW)

    In the group of well-rested mice, astrocytes were seen to be active in about 6% of a mouse's synapses. In mice whose sleep had been delayed, they appeared in a larger 8%. And in the profoundly sleep-deprived mice, astrocytes were active in 13.5% of the synapses, more than double the areas of activity in the well-rested mice. “We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss," asserts Bellesi.

    Whether this is a good or bad thing is unclear. Some of the pruning was done to the largest synapses: well-used, mature connections. Bellisi suspects, “They are like old pieces of furniture, and so probably need more attention and cleaning."

    Microglia and neurons (GERRY SHAW)

    More worrying is the similar increase in activity discovered in microglial cells of sleep-deprived mice. Overactive microglial cells in humans have been previously linked to a variety of brain disorders. Bellisi again: “We already know that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer's and other forms of neurodegeneration." Other studies have also linked sleep deprivation to the onset of dementia, and this could be the mechanism at work.

    Assuming the results in this study of mice also hold true for humans, the obvious takeaway is that we should all be careful to get the sleep we need. According to the Sleep Foundation, these are the current recommendations for how much sleep you should be getting:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened two hours to 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened by one hour to 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range widened by one hour to 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13)
  • School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category)
  • Rest well!

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

    Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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    Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
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