Just One Night Of Bad Sleep Can Have This Harmful Effect On Your Brain, A Study Says

Wordley Calvo Stock/Fotolia

My sleep health is, shall we say, not great. Last week, I went to Starbucks around 11:30 p.m. and got a latte with an extra shot of espresso. I'm not sure I remember what it's like to be feel fully alert, but not getting enough sleep can have serious side effects, and a new study just revealed a new, terrifying possibility. Researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Yale University, and Piramal Pharma found that one night of sleep deprivation can cause an increase in an Alzheimer's-associated protein called amyloid beta (also called beta-amyloid). According to the Alzheimer's Association, amyloid beta can accumulate into plaques that make it harder for brain cells to communicate. Eventually, the brain cells die as a result of the accumulation of protein. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are the first to provide data about sleep deprivation and amyloid beta in humans. Previous research focused on mice, the study says.

For this research, researchers examined 20 healthy people between 22 and 72 years old who weren't taking medication or and took PET scans after a night of sleep deprivation and a night of good sleep. They saw an increase in amyloid beta in the sleep deprivation scans. "In summary, our findings show adverse effects of one-night sleep deprivation on brain ABB [amyloid beta burden] and expand on prior findings of higher Aβ [amyloid beta] accumulation with chronic less sleep," the study says. According to the results, researchers aren't sure whether amyloid beta production increases because you're awake for longer than usual, or if it's caused directly by your not getting enough rest — sleep is thought to flush out the accumulated protein. Either way, this is sobering news for anyone who stays awake for most of the night.

I've always assumed that you have to be chronically sleep deprived to actually see any longterm effects, but these researchers point out that amyloid beta accumulation can happen quickly, and may be most detrimental in its earliest stages. They conclude that the results suggest that never getting enough sleep could lead to even more amyloid beta buildup, but one night is enough for your brain to be adversely affected. Because this study only included 20 people, more research is needed before scientists will know exactly how one night of sleep affects your brain and protein buildup. But the researchers say the results "highlight the relevance of good sleep hygiene for proper brain function," and the study can even be used to teach people how to potentially prevent Alzheimer's disease, the study says.

Alzheimer's disease affects more than five million people in the U.S., and it's the sixth leading cause of death in the nation. It's a degenerative disease, which means it gets worse over time. Eventually, people with Alzheimer's disease will lose the ability to communicate, and their bodies will shut down. There's no cure, and scientists aren't sure what causes it, according to the National Institute of Aging. Medical experts already recommended getting enough sleep as an Alzheimer's prevention tool, according to Harvard Medical School, but this study suggests that having good sleep habits all the time could keep you healthy down the road

I've always thought the occasional sleep-deprived night wouldn't do much harm, but I may be wrong. Getting enough sleep also helps strengthen your immune system and can reduce stress and improve your mood, so there are other benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I joke regularly about how bad I am at taking steps to improve sleep health like exercise and avoiding electronics and caffeine near bedtime. But now that I know that being bleary-eyed isn't the worst potential side effect, I know that I need to make some changes.