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Sleep Deprivation and the Brain

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 16 Nov 2010 | comments*Discuss
Brain Insomnia Sleep Problems Neocortex

It's well known that certain types of changes in the brain, such as those following strokes, can trigger insomnia - but did you know that insomnia can also trigger changes in the brain? Some of these help to explain the links between insomnia and other health problems, whilst others help to explain how mild sleeplessness can turn into a chronic problem.

Regions of the Brain

Three regions of the brain are affected more severely by sleep deprivation than others:-

  • The neocortex - this affects how we process information, explaining why we may struggle to concentrate or to solve simple puzzles when we're tired.
  • The hippocampus - this is important for memory formation, explain why it's easy to forget or lose track of things when overtired, and why some people with chronic insomnia struggle to recall past events.
  • The amygdala - this is important for emotional control and may explain why insomnia is linked to depression as well as to more minor problems like moodiness and bad temper.

Gene Activation

As well as affecting brain regions, insomnia can affect individual genes within our cells. Although we don't develop any new genes after we're born, different factors in our lives, from what we eat to the chemicals we encounter in our environment, can affect which genes are activated. This low-level change can have significant effects on our bodies.

Over 200 different genes are believed to be activated by insomnia, though the number affected in any particular individual will depend on the severity of their sleep problems and how long those problems last for. Scientists still don't know what all the affected genes do, especially as most genes do more than one thing, but some are known to be linked to mental health problems like schizophrenia that are more common in insomniacs.

Language and Imagination

Because insomnia interferes with the functioning of the neocortex, it affects two important tasks performed in this part of the brain - managing language, and imagination. This is why people who have not slept for a long time tend to slur their speech. It's also why it's especially hard to do creative work when overtired.

There is increasing evidence that sleep problems in children can affect the development of the neocortex, with the potential to cause long term difficulty in these areas. This is why it is particularly important to seek medical help if your child seems to be suffering from insomnia. Fortunately, long term damage is unlikely in adults.

Struggling to process language can lead to the repetition of verbal thoughts which - ironically - keep many insomniacs awake at night. If, however, you are aware of what's happening, you may find it easier to distance yourself from it and relax.

Insomnia and Dementia

Unfortunately, because of the brain changes caused by lack of sleep, long term insomnia places people at increased risk of developing dementia in later life. This is thought to be exacerbated by the fact that, without sleep, the brain finds it harder to repair itself or to route around damaged areas.

Unless you are able to find successful treatment for your insomnia, there is unfortunately little you can do about this. It is worth noting, however, that dementia is easier to treat if caught early, so knowing the risk means you can look out for symptoms and talk to your doctor straight away if they occur. You can also reduce your risk from other factors by eating healthily and getting plenty of exercise.

As we understand more about the brain, the chances of finding successful treatments for insomnia - and its many side effects - are continually improving. Knowing how your own brain is affected may help you to manage your insomnia more effectively, or at least enable you to learn from it.

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