The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

How sleep deprivation affects your brain

We're sleeping less than we used to, which is having a huge impact on our brains

Rachel Hosie
Tuesday 27 June 2017 09:41 BST

Last year, a report revealed that 80 per cent of Brits are suffering from lack of sleep, and doctors and teachers are the most sleep-deprived of all.

What’s more, sleep deprivation costs the UK economy £40 billion a year, due to our reduced productivity and health.

Some people claim they can happily survive on less sleep than others, but on the whole we’re sleeping less than we used to - according to the latest figures from the Sleep Council, 74 per cent of Brits sleep for less than seven hours a night, and the number of people who say they get less than five hours has grown from seven to 12 per cent.

Most people agree that they work less efficiently when tired, but just how does not getting enough sleep actually affect your brain?

Earlier this year, an Italian study concluded that sleep deprivation can actually cause brain cells to eat parts of the brain’s synapses.

These star-shaped brain cells are called astrocytes, and one of their jobs is to clean out worn-out cells. The study found that the astrocytes went into overdrive in sleep-deprived mice, so more of the brain’s connections were broken down.

“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss,” research leader Michele Bellesi told New Scientist.

In another study, participants who hadn’t had enough sleep became more angry and stressed when trying to complete a simple cognitive test that those who weren’t sleep deprived.

This reaction comes down to the amygdala, the area of the brain which controls emotions. The study showed that lack of sleep leads to more emotional responses because the amygdala becomes as much as 60 per cent more active than normal.

The researchers also found that sleep deprivation disrupted the connection between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, which regulates amygdala function.

Not getting enough sleep, it seems, causes people to reach more emotionally to negative stimuli because the amygdala overreacts.

And the hippocampus is another area of the brain that is seriously affected by lack of sleep.

Just one bad night’s sleep impairs the hippocampus, which is the critical region for storing new memories. This means people struggle to remember new pieces of information.

There have been many studies into the effects of sleep deprivation, but we still have a lot more to learn about its effects on our minds.

Researchers in Canada are now hoping to conduct what is set to become the world’s largest study of the effects of lack of sleep on the brain.

Researchers from Western University, Ontario, are calling on people to sign up to take part across the globe.

In trials, some participants found their brains acting significantly under par when sleep deprived.

“There is much less activity in the frontal and parietal lobes - areas we know are crucial for decision making, problem solving and memory,” Professor Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist based at the Brain and Mind Institute in London, Ontario and lead author of the study, told the BBC.

He hopes that if enough people participate in the study, they may be able to definitively work out what is the optimum length of sleep a person should get each night.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in