Friday, October 04, 2013

Landmark Research: Why We Need to Get Enough Sleep

In other blog posts I have explained why sleep is good for the brain in general and memory formation in particular. Now a new discovery provides another reason for people to get enough sleep. The study examined a type of support cell in the brain, oligodendrocytes–let’s call them oligos for short. These cells wrap their membranes around nerve cells to form what is called myelin, which forms an electrical insulation in a way that speeds up the propagation of nerve impulses through neural networks. You may have heard about oligos in reading about multiple sclerosis, a disease that impairs nerve communication because oligos die and the myelin insulation degrades.

Speed of transmission is important–it influences IQ for example. As you know from buying a new computer, the faster processor speed gives it new capabilities your old clunker could not do. A similar idea applies to the brain.

Anyway, this new study, from the University of Wisconsin, focused on oligos because other research had shown that sleep promoted the expression of several genes that are involved in synthesis of cell membranes in general and those in oligos in particular. Unlike neurons, oligos die, and are replaced in the brain. Thus, anything that affects their turnover is important for brain function. Sleep has been implicated in this turnover because a common neurotransmitter in the brain, glutamate, is known to increase in wakefulness and decline during sleep. Glutamate  suppresses maturation of oligo precursor cells into formation of myelin insulation.

In this particular study, investigators examined a genome-wide profile of oligo gene expression in mice after a 6-7 hour periods of sleep or spontaneous wakefulness, or four hours of forced wakefulness (sleep deprivation). They found that 357 genes were expressed differently, depending on the time of day, in response to normal daily rhythms. More dramatic was the observation that 714 genes changed expression in conjunction with the sleep/wakefulness cycle, independent of the time of day. Of these genes, 310 were “sleep” genes that were selectively activated during sleep.

Many of the sleep genes contribute to maturation of oligos into myelin. In follow up experiments, mice were injected with a radiolabeled tag that marks the birth of new cells. Injection occurred eight hours before mice spent a long period of either of wakefulness or sleep. The number of newly born oligos was almost double in the sleep group compared to the wake group. More detailed analysis showed that this increase was specifically correlated with the amount of REM sleep (dream sleep in humans).

This REM effect may have particular importance in humans. Most REM sleep occurs in the early morning hours and only after substantial time has been spent in non-REM stages of sleep. Thus, cutting a night’s sleep short by getting up early may decrease the amount of REM time and thus the beneficial effects on oligo proliferation. So don’t feel guilty about “sleeping in” from time to time.

We might also think about how these findings could have special relevance to children, whose brains are incompletely myelinated. Getting children up early in the morning to start school at 8 AM may not be such a good idea. Until school districts get around to changing school hours, you might tell you kids about my learning and memory improvement e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort, available at


Bellesi, M., et al. (2013) Effects of sleep and wake on oligodendrocytes and their precursors. J. Neuroscience. 33 (36), 14288-14300.

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