Lack of Sleep and Shrinking Brains

Most of us would have experienced how difficult it can be to perform at our best when suffering from a lack of sleep. However, there are more subtle, long-lasting effects, which late evenings and early starts can cause. For instance, it has been well established that certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, are associated with disrupted sleep, demonstrating that there is a tight coupling between an individual’s health and their sleep habits. A paper published earlier this month by researchers at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore underscores this.

The researchers looked specifically at aging Chinese adults, and had a sample size of 66. Every 2 years, participants underwent brain scans, using structural MRI to calculate brain volume, and had their neuropsychological performance assessed. The study found that reduced sleep correlated with a decline in cognitive performance, as well as an expansion of cavities in the brain, similar to what is seen in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. Interestingly though, these symptoms where not accompanied with the elevated inflammatory responses typical of neurodegenerative disease, signifying that this is a distinct condition associated with lack of sleep.

This is the first time sleep as a marker for reduction in brain volume has ever been investigated, and the generation of such a striking result illustrates that the relationship between brain health and sleep shall need to be more closely examined. For example, we currently do not know whether reduction of sleep is symptomatic or causal, neither do we know that all demographics experience the same correlation between sleep and brain deterioration. Of particular interest is the fact that sleep deprivation generates symptoms similar to those observed in two of the world’s fastest growing diseases, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier research has suggested that these two diseases share a common pathway, as diabetes has been identified as risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, recent research has shown that receptors which bind insulin in the brain are reduced in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and some researchers have gone as far as to coin the term “type 3 diabetes” for Alzheimer’s disease.  Though, the extent of this relationship between brain health and glucose metabolism is still controversial, the fact that sleep has a significant role in both is remarkable. Understanding the interplay between these three factors could provide valuable insights into the processes underlying neurodegeneration.


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A final year PhD student, studying the role of metal ions in Alzheimer's disease at Queen Mary University, London. If you enjoy my articles, you can follow me on twitter to stay updated (

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1 Response

  1. Avatar Simon says:

    Great piece dude!

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