Studies Suggest that Sleep might Cleanse the Brain

If anyone understands the value of sleep, it’s college students. But, aside from feeling well-rested, does sleep have another purpose?

New research done by a team of US scientists shows that sleep may act as a “waste removal system” for our brains. Their study “showed [that] brain cells shrink during sleep to open up the gaps between neurons and allow fluid to wash the brain clean.” Essentially, this means that during sleep, our brains clear out any toxins that may have built up after a standard day of using our brains.

Last year scientists discovered that the brain has a network of “plumbing pipes.” These pipes, known as the glymphatic system, carry waste material out of the brain. According to BBC News, “Cells in the brain…shrink during sleep. This increases the size of the interstitial space, the gaps between brain tissue, allowing more fluid to be pumped in and wash the toxins away.”

Though our bodies are at a resting state when we sleep, studies have shown that the brain is still extremely active. Scientists who have imaged the brains of mice found out that their glymphatic system became 10-times more active during sleep. This cleanse that happens during sleep is said to be “vital” for staying alive, but it can’t be done while we are awake.

One researcher, Dr Maiken Nedergaard, explains, “The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states – awake and aware, or asleep and cleaning up.”

This new research showcases the importance of a good night’s sleep. Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert, says that the study shows that sleep acts as essential downtime to do some “housekeeping” to flush out neurotoxins. He further expressed, “There is good data on memory and learning, the psychological reason for sleep. But this is the actual physical and chemical reason for sleep, something is happening which is important.”

Researchers are speculating that disorders within the brain’s cleaning mechanisms might be contributing factors to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. However, more research is needed to back these theories.

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