A new study sheds light on the role sleep plays in the the ability of the brain’s cells to grow and repair themselves.
The research, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted in mice that were either allowed to sleep, or forced to stay awake. Researchers looked particularly at how sleep — or lack thereof — affected gene activity of cells called oligodendrocytes, which play a role in the production of myelin. Myelin covers brain and spinal cord nerve cell projections as a sort of “insulation”; researchers explained that it is integral to the movement of electrical impulses from cell to cell.
The study shows that sleep seems to turn on genes known to play a part in the formation of myelin. Meanwhile, lack of sleep was linked with the activation of genes associated with cell stress and death.
“For a long time, sleep researchers focused on how the activity of nerve cells differs when animals are awake versus when they are asleep,” study researcher Chiara Cirelli, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said in a statement. “Now it is clear that the way other supporting cells in the nervous system operate also changes significantly depending on whether the animal is asleep or awake.”
Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Surrey and University College London found that sleep is also important to maintaining the health of our brain’s neurons, in that it allows the neurons to independently rest and repair themselves.
“If neurons attempt to obtain rest while we are awake, it is not only much less efficient, but also affects our performance negatively,” the researcher of that study, Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, who is a lecturer in Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Surrey, said in a statement. “On the other hand, under certain conditions some areas of our brain may be unable to ‘fall asleep’ and remain in a ‘local wakefulness’ state, resulting in us experiencing a very bad night’s sleep.”