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URMC / Patients & Families / Health Matters / October 2013 / Catching ZZZs: Study Reveals Brain ‘Takes Out Trash’ While We Sleep

Catching ZZZs: Study Reveals Brain ‘Takes Out Trash’ While We Sleep

In findings that give fresh meaning to the old adage that a good night’s sleep clears the mind, a new study shows that a recently discovered system that flushes waste from the brain is primarily active during sleep.
The study, which was published Oct. 17 in the journal Science, reveals that the brain’s unique method of waste removal—the glymphatic system—is highly active during sleep, clearing away toxins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. The findings could transform scientists’ understanding of the biological purpose of sleep and point to new ways to treat neurological disorders.
woman sleeping
Suddenly craving a better night’s rest? Sleep medicine expert Dr. Wilfred Pigeon offers the following tips:
  • Maintain a regular bedtime as much as possible—and avoid naps. Sneaking some sleep on the side might feel good at the time, but can backfire, sometimes making it tricky to sleep later on.
  • As much as possible, avoid stimulating activities immediately before bed. That includes channel and web surfing, exhausting mental feats and, of course, physical exercise. 
  • Keep the bedroom reserved for just sleep and sex—not lounging or watching TV.

Perhaps the best sleep tip: Get enough of it! While we’re quick to spout off eight hours as the magic amount of adequate sleep, the truth is the numbers are actually a bit fuzzy. Much depends on how sleep quantity is measured—and actually, several large surveys have found the overall average sleep duration to consistently clock in at just about seven hours per night. What’s more, it might be that we play catch-up on weekends, so not all nights are created equal.

Sleep, of course, is crucial to health—and life. 
Chronic deprivation can diminish the production of growth hormone, and even disturb one’s ability to learn and recall information. In fact, over a relatively short time—just a  week—the effects of nightly partial sleep deprivation can lead to performance reductions on cognitive and motor tasks that are right on par with the kind of decreases we observe in people with blood alcohol contents of 0.10 percent (that’s above the legal driving limit in all U.S. states).
At the extreme, prolonged total sleep deprivation in laboratory rats has been shown to weaken their ability to fight infection and regulate body temperature—and in drastic cases, has led to death in a matter of weeks. Although this may seem dramatic, it goes to show just how vital sleep is to life.
Wilfred Pigeon PhD
Wilfred R. Pigeon, PhD, is the author of "Sleep Manual: Training Your Mind & Body to Achieve the Perfect Night’s Sleep," and directs the Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center. To learn more about the facility call (585) 275-2900.

Lori Barrette | 10/17/2013

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