A good night’s rest keeps the brain squeaky clean

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

brain clean
This picture shows blue-dyed CSF entering the brain through its “plumbing system.”

Even though scientists know a ton about the body and how it functions, they know surprisingly little about why it needs to sleep. Previous studies have shown that a good night’s rest is important for memory and learning, and now, new research from the University of Rochester Medical Center reveals it’s also responsible for keeping the brain squeaky clean!

About a year ago, the university researchers discovered that the brain had a special plumbing  mechanism called the glymphatic system. Using mice, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard and her team color dyed a material known as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) – which surrounds the brain and spinal cord – to see how it was controlled by the system.

“It’s as if Dr. Nedergaard and her colleagues have uncovered a network of hidden caves and these exciting results highlight the potential importance of the network in normal brain function,” said Roderick Corriveau, Ph.D., a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). However, the research team also noticed an interesting pattern.

They realized a rodent’s CSF barely moved while they were awake, yet swirled and whooshed about nearly 10 times as much while they were asleep! In order to find out what the heck was going on, the team inserted electrodes into the heads of the mice and discovered that space in between their brain cells was increased by around 60%.

mice brain clean
Researchers observed how dyed CSF flowed through rat brains.

“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,” said Nedergaard. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”

The researchers believe that malfunctions may cause different brain diseases, but they need to conduct more studies in order to be sure.

Featured image courtesy of University of Rochester Medical Center on YouTube.