25 FEB 2021
There are times when it’s unavoidable – a dissertation is due, a family member is in the emergency room, it’s make-or-break for your company – but you should be aware of just how damaging pulling an all-nighter can be for your body.
Neuroscientists from Norway looked closely at the potential repercussions on our health, and it’s not pretty (as you might expect if you’ve ever suffered a sleepless night).
They recruited 21 healthy young men to undergo a series of diffusion tensor imaging (or DTI) tests, which indicate water diffusion in the body and thus the health of the nervous system.
The volunteers stayed awake for 23 hours, and to provide some control conditions, they weren’t allowed to consume alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine during the study, and they couldn’t eat anything before a DTI scan.
The 2015 report pointed to “significant” changes in the white matter inside the brain after a night with no sleep, finding that “sleep deprivation was associated with widespread fractional anisotropy”.
In other words, a degradation of the ‘connectivity’ networks inside the brain – something you might have felt first-hand if you’ve ever tried to collect your thoughts after a sleepless night.
Changes were noticed throughout the brain, covering the corpus callosum, brainstem, thalamus, fronto-temporal and parieto-occipital tracts.
What’s not quite as clear is how permanent this damage is: could a long sleep the next night repair all the damage that’s been done, for example?
There’s also the question of how far other factors contribute to these shifts in the makeup of our neuronal tissue.
“My hypothesis would be that the putative effects of one night of sleep deprivation on white matter microstructure are short term and reverse after one to a few nights of normal sleep,” says the report’s lead author Torbjørn Elvsåshagen in a blog post.
“However, it could be hypothesised that chronic sleep insufficiency might lead to longer-lasting alterations in brain structure… [that hypothesis] remains to be clarified.”
Two of the test subjects didn’t show the same brain pattern behaviour as the others, indicating that perhaps some of us have bodies that are better protected against the effects of sleep deprivation.
It’s a small study so we need to take the results with a grain of salt. A follow-up study could potentially add additional scans at shorter intervals of time and take the activities of participants into consideration (something that wasn’t done this time around).
Plenty of other researchers are looking at the same question: sleeplessness has been shown to interfere with our genes as well as our brains, so it’s a pretty big deal.
In 2017, for example, researchers in Italy found the brain literally starts eating itself when it doesn’t get enough sleep. Ouch.