What Happens When You’re Asleep?

SleepingSleep, the initiator of dreamland, home of relaxation, and protagonist of restfulness. The stuff that’s essential for creating and consolidating memories. The big player in the formation of new neuronal connections and pruning of old ones. But hardly important enough to be occupying roughly one-third of our lives, right? Surely, there must be something important enough for our bodies to need during sleep for it to take up so much of our time each night.

Sleep Studies

In a series of new studies, published this fall in the journal, Science, light may finally be shed on what exactly our bodies need sleep – and lots of it – for.

For a test of these studies, it’s looking more and more like sleep might play a necessary role in our brain’s physiological maintenance. As we sleep, our brains essentially become a mental janitor, cleaning out all the junk in our minds that accumulated throughout the day from thinking.

Then And Now

Until a few years ago, most researchers believed the brain worked as a recycling system: It got rid of its own waste by breaking it down and recycling it at an individual cellular level. As you grow old, that process eventually failed, leading to age-related cognitive decline and mental diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Now, Maiken Nedergaard, a Danish biologist who has been leading research into sleep function at the University of Rochester’s medical school, proposes a brain equivalent of the lymphatic system, a network of different channels that clean out toxins with cerebrospinal fluid.

She termed it the “glymphatic system,” a reference to its dependence on glial cells (the supportive cells in the brain that maintain homeostasis and protect neurons) and its purpose of essentially emulating the lymphatic system.

What It Means

Our world today is increasingly unable to provide our minds with the proper cleaning time. An astonishing 80 percent of working adults suffer from some level of sleep deprivation, and on average, we’re getting one to two hours less sleep each night than we did 50 to 100 years ago.

Not getting sufficient sleep leads to our mind’s “cleaning system” breaking down. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, Sigrid Veasey has been looking at how restless nights disrupts the brain’s metabolism.

At the extreme end, not allowing your brain ample time to get rid of the “trash” by being deprived of sleep could lead to the acceleration of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Not only that, but when you’re not getting proper sleep over time, there is a buildup of the proteins that the glymphatic system normally clears out during regular sleep schedules – including ones associated with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.

According to Dr. Veasey, it “very clearly shows that there’s impaired clearance in the awake brain. We’re really starting to realize that when we skip sleep, we may be doing irreparable damage to the brain, prematurely aging it or setting it up for heightened vulnerability to other insults.”

Sleep tight, folks.


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Used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones

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