Scientists discover physical effects of sleep on brains

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Our brain is made up of billions and billions of cells called neurons. These brain cells make connections called synapses, which are strengthened when we sleep.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that sleep, learning, and memory go hand in hand with one another. Heck, all you have to do is stay up late on a school night to feel the groggy and unfocused effects the following morning. There have been several studies to demonstrate the behavioral effects sleep can have on memory, but there wasn’t really any physical evidence to show for it. Now, however, a new team of researchers has discovered how sleep affects our ol’ noggin at the cellular level!

See, our brains are made up of billions and billions of cells known as neurons. Just about everything we do depends on the communication between these cells, which use special tree-like branches called dendrites in order to make connections. The brain uses a delicate balance of chemicals and lightning-fast electrical impulses to send signals and communicate through these connections. As neurons make more connections with each other, our brains can function better as a whole, and according to the new study, sleep makes the neuron branching process go smoother.

In order to prove this, the researchers taught a group of mice how to walk on a spinning rod, which was a new skill that required tons of training. The experimenters then used a powerful microscope to observe their brains, allowing some of the critters to get shuteye and depriving the rest of much-needed sleep. It turns out the furballs that were snoozing away had neurons branching out and creating more dendrites! As the researchers describe it, the sleeping mice were relearning the day’s lesson in their rest, which is an important factor in memory formation.

Sleep deprivation is becoming a widespread public problem, so hopefully this study will motivate groggy individuals to get more zzz’s at night!

Image of neurons courtesy of Morphine Machine.