Sleeping baby

Could Science Find a Way to Negate the Need for Sleep?

Laurie Stepanek
Apr 26, 2014

When I was a child, upon waking in the middle of the night I would force myself to cry so that my mom would hear me and sit with me. I hated feeling as if I was the only person in the world awake. Of course I wasn’t – 65% of American report “frequent” sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep or waking during the night. A flurry of research has shown that poor sleep can have negative effects on everything from learning, to cardiovascular disease, to obesity.

A recent article describing the effects of only three nights of sleep deprivation in mice is particularly scary. Mice that were kept awake for 8 hours of their normal 12 hour night for 3 days, lost 25% of the neurons in the locus coeruleus, a brain region that is important for alertness and adaptation to stress. A particularly nice aspect of this study was that the mice were kept awake merely by adding toys into their environment, rather than poking them or dropping them into water if they appeared sleepy. Thus, the loss of neurons was more likely due to the lack of sleep than external stress factors. This study, designed to mimic a shift worker’s sleep patterns, is one of the first to suggest that irreversible brain damage can occur from repetitive sleep loss.

Another study, published in Science last fall, indicates that sleep may allow the brain to flush out waste products that build up during wakefulness. During sleep or anesthesia, the space between cells in the brains of mice more than doubled, allowing spinal fluid to flow deeper into the brain tissue. When proteins were introduced into the mouse brains by researchers, they cleared 2x faster when the mice were asleep. This fits with a previous idea that sleep is induced when certain waste products build up in the brain. The researchers are planning a similar experiment in humans. If it is true that we sleep to allow toxins to be washed out of the brain, could a drug be designed to destroy the toxins instead? Could humans someday stay awake indefinitely?

In the near term, the accumulating evidence for the importance of sleep health has led to various policy proposals. James K. Walsh, a leading sleep researcher, has written about the need for a massive education campaign, similar to what has been done for smoking. The National Sleep Foundation supports Sleep Awareness Week and Drowsy Driving Week in conjunction with the CDC, and conducts well-publicized annual sleep polls. The Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine makes recommendations to corporations, such as ensuring that health care providers ask about sleep health during employee physicals, and designing shift work schedules to be less disruptive to innate sleep patterns. Several school districts have delayed high school start times in response to data showing that natural sleep and wake times shift later during adolescence. Now put away your iPad and go to sleep!

Image by Mikael Häggström from Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

Laurie Stepanek

Laurie Stepanek, PhD, is currently an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation in the division of Engineering Education and Centers. Her day job focuses on program evaluation of engineering education research, but her activities extend to promoting STEM education, scientific literacy, and student-led innovation. Prior to her fellowship, she studied vocal learning and plasticity in songbirds at the University of California, San Francisco. She continues to love neuroscience and is active in the AAAS Fellows’ Neuropolicy Affinity Group.


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

Comments (1)

Laurie Stepanek (not verified)
May 02, 2014 at 10:43 am
For you scientists who want to read the original papers, they are: J. Zhang et al., Journal of Neuroscience 34(12): 4418 (2014). L. Xie et al., Science 342: 373 (2013).

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