Lack of sleep may disrupt development of a child’s brain

Lack of sleep may disrupt development of a child’s brain

“New brain scans reveal sleep deprivation damages children’s brains more than previously thought,” the Mail Online reports.

Researchers measured the brain activity of children whose sleep had been restricted by four hours and found some potentially worrying signs.

The study included 13 children aged between five and 12 and compared the effects of a normal night’s sleep (9pm bedtime) with a restricted night’s sleep (2am bedtime), both with the same wake up time.

Previous studies in adults have shown that sleep restriction increases deep sleep waves – patterns of brain activity associated with the deepest sleep – in the front region of the brain.

The researchers found similar effects in children, but this time at the back and side regions of the brain involved in planned movements, spatial reasoning, and attention.

The researchers were concerned this could impact on the development of the brain. Neural structures inside the brain change and adapt to the stimulus the brain receives; a concept known as plasticity. The worry is that the deep sleep waves could disrupt or slow down normal plasticity development.

They also found that sleep deprivation was linked with some structural changes to the myelin sheath – the fatty coating on nerve fibres going towards the back of the brain. However, it’s quite a big step to say this results in disruption to brain development.

This study was tiny, and observed short term effects. We have no idea whether similar sleep deprivation would have any long-term effect on a child.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from a number of institutions including the University of Colorado and University Hospital Zurich.

Funding for the research was provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Clinical Research Priority Program Sleep and Health of the University of Zurich, the Jacob’s Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience on an open-access basis so it is free to read online.

The Mail Online’s reporting of the study was generally accurate but some of the language used in the reporting was over the top. While the results of the study certainly deserve consideration, claims that they amount to “staggering damage” are unproven and exaggerated.

What kind of research was this?

This is a cross sectional study which aimed to assess whether sleep deprivation in school age children could have an effect on brain activity and development.

The researchers explain how previous research in adults has shown that the brain responds to sleep deprivation by increased depth of sleep (non-REM sleep).

This has been demonstrated by increased slow-wave activity (SWA) when monitoring the person’s brain while they slept, using an electroencephalogram (EEG). An EEG uses a series of sensors placed around the scalp to monitor the electrical activity of the brain. SWA shows up as a distinct wave-like pattern.

When adults are sleep deprived, this SWA response is usually seen in the front of the brain. The researchers chose to study children as it is not known how their brain responds to acute sleep restriction, and whether any effects seen could be related to brain development.

This kind of study is good for identifying patterns but the very small sample size may make these results unreliable. It is also not able to predict whether these changes may affect longer term outcomes.

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