Home > Sleep Problems > Sleep Deprivation and the Brain

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.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Why not be the first to leave a comment for discussion, ask for advice or share your story...

If you'd like to ask a question one of our experts (workload permitting) or a helpful reader hopefully can help you... We also love comments and interesting stories

Title:
(never shown)
Firstname:
(never shown)
Surname:
(never shown)
Email:
(never shown)
Nickname:
(shown)
Comment:
Validate:
Enter word:
Topics
Latest Comments
  • julie
    Re: Coughing and Sleep Loss
    Hi I had a cold on Sunday, it started with hit and cold feeling changing every hour, I started taking paracetamol fir it. Before going to…
    14 March 2019
  • Adrienne
    Re: Feeling Too Cold to Sleep
    Why do i get cold at nights? While in day I'm normal? It's been 1 week now after my first encounter about this and I'm worried. Last…
    5 March 2019
  • Ukung
    Re: Feeling Too Cold to Sleep
    While sleeping I feel extreme cold and need two three blankets. My husband, who is on insulin, swets. How can I get rid of this? While…
    15 February 2019
  • steve jaubert
    Re: Dehydration and Insomnia
    Hello, I read a recent email from Dr Carolyn Dean who is involved with marketing products for Magnesium deficiencies. She does have…
    2 November 2018
  • Princess lynn
    Re: Feeling Too Cold to Sleep
    I have tried all of them but for me they don’t work. And I am home alone. My heating is on but I am still cold. What should I do?
    27 October 2018
  • Susie
    Re: Involuntary Jerking While Asleep, What Could it be?
    My partner keeps me awake he his continuously moving his arms and legs all night he doesn't realize…
    17 October 2018
  • Heidi
    Re: Involuntary Jerking While Asleep, What Could it be?
    I would start jerking the second I closed my eyes. I once counted 100 jerks in 45 minutes. They…
    8 October 2018
  • Lollipop
    Re: Understanding Lack of Sleep
    I go to sleep about 10pm, then wake at 12 and then 2am. After that I rarely can get bake to sleep. Sleeping pills don't work. I've…
    23 September 2018
  • Shorty
    Re: Dehydration and Insomnia
    Your site is the first notice I have had of the connection between insomnia and dehydration. Now in my 80s, I have had poor sleep all…
    3 April 2018
  • Imran
    Re: Dehydration and Insomnia
    Hello insominaics I have sleeplessness issue for 4 5 years. I could sleep after 2 3 hours after laying. But one month ago i have…
    30 March 2018