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Can sleep loss lead to brain damage? Researchers say yes

For shift workers across the nation, working odd schedules is part of the job description. And whether you’re a retail worker or a truck driver, chances are those long hours and varying schedules have started to cut into your sleep schedule. While most people assume that they can make up for lost sleep by sleeping in on the weekends, some scientists now believe that this may not be as beneficial as we may think. In fact, damage may have already been done to our brains without us even realizing it.

Neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania recently looked at how long-term sleep deprivation affects the brain by putting mice on a similar sleep schedule to most shift workers. Just as a shift worker would, scientists let the mice sleep for certain periods of time then forced them to stay away for varying periods of time. After doing this for awhile, scientists looked at the mice’s brains and were shocked at what they found.

In the area of the brain that controls alertness and cognitive function, scientists found that the mice had lost 25 percent of the neurons in that area. The researchers believe that the changing sleep schedule caused the mice’s brains to secrete a protein to protect the neurons in that area. But when loss of sleep became a habit, that reaction shut down, leading to brain damage.

Although further research still needs to be done on humans, for now it appears as if researchers have discovered a new type of work injury. With further research, this could lead to changes in scheduling across the nation, including here in California. It’s even possible that this could also lead to compensation, especially if the brain damage is severe enough.

Source: CNN, “Shift workers beware: Sleep loss may cause brain damage, new research says,” Ben Brumfield, Mar. 19, 2014