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Sleep loss may lead to brain damage, study suggests

With the pressure of academic success causing students at schools such as Boston University to pull frequent “all-nighters,” a study published Jan. 14 in the journal Sleep shows that this sleep deprivation could lead to brain damage.

The study, conducted by researchers from Uppsalla University in Sweden, tested the blood levels of brain injury-related proteins in 15 young men after keeping them awake for one night. After comparing these blood levels to those taken after subjects received eight hours of sleep, researchers found an increase in the brain injury-related proteins that could point to neuronal damage.

“The biomarkers that were elevated are impressive,” said Boston University School of Medicine assistant professor Hasmeena Kathuria, who specializes in sleep medicine. “… If it turns out to be true and those biomarkers are elevated, then that could predict if brain damage goes back to lack of sleep.”

Although one all-nighter would not necessarily cause brain damage, continuous sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on a student’s mental health, Kathuria said.

“Sleep deprivation has very important effects on alertness as well as decreased reaction time, judgment, short-term memory, impaired information processing,” she said. “There’s a lot of negative effects from sleep deprivation, whether it’s chronic, like five hours for two nights, versus pulling an all-nighter, which is getting two to three hours of sleep for one night.”

All-nighters, which are primarily motivated by a need to study, are counter-productive in that lack of sleep has been proven to lead to a decreased GPA, Kathuria said.

“There is definitely a relationship between sleep and college performance,” she said. “… Students who pulled all-nighters had lower GPAs … Mood disturbances in young kids, depression, suicide, those have all been directly linked to sleep deprivation. Those are definitely important problems that teenagers and young adults have.”

Extensive sleep deprivation can also cause long-term physical and mental ailments, Kathuria said.

“There’s been several studies that show that with sleep deprivation, there’s mood disturbances, including depression, irritability, anxiety, weight gain,” she said. “Sleep deprivation has been shown to be linked to insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes, impaired immunity, increased cardiovascular problems ­— high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack.”

Kathuria said she recommends a college-age student get at least eight hours of sleep per night. Anything less than seven hours of sleep is considered sleep-deprived.

Vincent Merta, a School of Management junior, said staying up late to study makes him drowsy during the following day, although the extra study time is generally helpful in preparing for exams.

“I don’t pull all-nighters regularly, but around exam times, I’ll usually stay up until about 4 or 5 and then sleep for 3 hours or 4 hours,” Merta said. “I just like to be prepared for my exams. The next day, I feel groggy, but I’m able to take a nap after my exam, so I don’t sweat it too much.”

Saniya Shah, a College of Engineering sophomore, said although all-nighters can help students finish their work, productivity from staying up is not worth sacrificing an entire night’s rest.

“They [all-nighters] don’t work for me,” she said. “I just get tired the next day and don’t get anything accomplished. It helps you get your work done, but it doesn’t help you the next day. You don’t do your best work at 3 in the morning.”

ENG junior George Jiao said he values a good night’s sleep because it keeps his brain functioning more efficiently in the morning.

“Personally, I think sleep is really important for cognitive abilities, so I try to get 8 hours a night usually,” Jiao said. “Your brain definitely works better in the morning than in the afternoon. When it gets so late at night, you’re distracted by everything that happened that day, and your brain doesn’t work as well.”

Felicia Gans contributed to the reporting of this story.

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