In a finding that could lead to new treatment for insomnia, a new study has claimed that sleeplessness may actually shrink a person’s brain.
The University of Cambridge study — the first to link insomnia to a reduction in vital grey matter — showed that those with chronic sleep problems had lower grey matter density in brain areas used to make decisions.
Dr. Ellemarije Altena, who led the research, said: “The findings predict that chronic insomnia sufferers may have compromised capacities to assess stimuli. This could have consequences for other thought processes, notably decision-making,” she said, adding that their finding could pave way for new treatment for those who struggle with sleeplessness as the brain areas are also used to regulate rest.
For their study, the scientists compared the brains of chronic insomnia patients to normal sleepers. They found that those with severe insomniacs exhibited the most extensive density loss, regardless of how long they had suffered from the disorder.
However, the researchers are not yet able to pin down whether sleeplessness precedes grey matter loss or the other way around.
Dr. Altena added: “We can’t say what comes first, the lower grey matter density or the insomnia. We only investigated older people, so follow-up studies at different ages in the future could determine what comes first.”
Sleep researchers have known that insomnia disrupts the way the brain works but this study begins to explain why that malfunctioning happens.
Dr. Ronald Kramer, a director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at the Colorado Neurology Institute, said: “This study suggests bad sleep is bad for the brain at a basic neurological level, not just a psychiatric nuisance.” Dr. Kramer said the research, which is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, could help in the discovery of a genuine medical treatment for insomnia.