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Chronic Lack of Sleep Makes Your Brain Eat Itself

What would you say is the leading cause of brains being eaten? Zombies? What would you say if you knew that the leading cause was living right in your own home? What would you say if you knew it was already living in your body? Scared yet? What would you say if you found out that munching sound inside your skull was your own fault? Pounding your head against the wall won’t help, but a good night’s sleep will. A new study on mice found that sleep deprivation can cause the brain to eat itself. Would this make a great movie plot? Researchers at the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy, lead by Michele Bellesi of the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, were studying glial cells in mice. These are cells that surround neurons to provide support and insulation. They were particularly interested in astrocytes – which sounds like a Greek god or a new superhero but are actually housekeeping glial cells that repair synapses or remove worn-out ones. Synapses are the junctions between nerve cells that are the wires of the brain’s communication system. They were also watching the behavior of microglial cells, which do the dirty work of removing dead or damaged brain cells while the mice sleep. Sounds like cells you want to keep from wandering off and acting erratically, right? Unfortunately, according to the team’s study results published in the Journal of Neuroscience, that seems to be what happens when the mice were deprived of sleep for extended periods. Observing the brain activity of mice in normal sleep patterns, Bellesi found that astrocytes were in cleanup mode for about 6 percent of the synapses. That activity increased to 8 percent when the mice were forced to stay up an additional eight hours, and hit 13.5 percent of the synapses when the mice were regularly deprived of sleep for longer periods. We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.

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