Senior Editor
Get some rest, Carissa. Otherwise your brain will eat itself.

Get some rest, Carissa. Otherwise your brain will eat itself. Photo: Instagram@World Sleep League

The Inertia

Sleep is a strange thing. I have a theory, though–and it’s probably not all that surprising–but going to sleep physically and mentally exhausted is the only way that anyone will get a good sleep. I think I’m an annoying person to share a bed with. Routinely, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, flick on a light, and read a book for a few hours. It drives girlfriends insane. When I worked (actually worked, instead of sitting down and typing silly little nothings for a few hours) as a utility arborist or a faller, for example, I’d beat the shit out of my body for 12 hours, crawl home, cram myself with food, then pass out and sleep like a dead person for as long as I could before doing it again. I was GREAT at sleeping. But no longer. Now I’m back in my old routine of falling asleep at 10 pm, waking up at 2 am, reading until 4 am, then fitfully sleeping until about 7 am. This morning, on my usual perusal for interesting things to write about, I found an article about sleep deprivation. The take away from it is chronic sleep deprivation MAKES THE BRAIN EAT ITSELF. Yeah, no shit.

A few years ago, I worked a very illegal 37-hour shift on an oil pipeline job. By the end of it, I was hallucinating. Not head-full-of-acid hallucinating, but I was seeing things in the corners of my eyes that weren’t there. Things were moving funny and the ground felt as though it was constantly sloped uphill. It was weird. Sleep is so important because it, in very simple terms, treats the brain like a dirty sheet that needs to be shaken out. The sheet gets used hard (except when staring at a tiny phone screen mindlessly, which apparently feels so good because it mimics a few of the brain functions that occur while sleeping.) It gets wrapped around shoulders and stepped on, getting wrinkled and dusty as the day wears on. When you sleep, you pick up the edge of the blanket and give it a good shake, smoothing out all the wrinkles and clearing off the dirt. Each morning, with a good sleep, at least, the sheet is smooth and crisp, waiting to be wrapped around more shoulders.

The hands that do the smoothing are called microglia cells. They, along with astrocytes, “ingest waste products from the nervous system, gobbling up the cellular debris of worn-out and dead cells.” Astrocytes are tasked with “pruning unnecessary synapses.”

The study that found that the brain literally (in the literal sense) eats itself was recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience. A study team of mice torturers (not really) tested four groups of mice. One group slept as much as they wanted, another was woken up throughout their sleep pattern, a third was forced to stay awake for 8 extra hours, and the fourth group of poor mice was kept awake for five whole days.

So here’s what they found: essentially, in regular mice, those astrocytes and microglia cells were active in 6 percent of synapses. When they looked at the brains of the five-day group, they found that those brain-cleaners were active in nearly 14 percent of synapses, meaning that they’re working frantically, pruning out synapses that aren’t unnecessary.

Neuroscientist Michele Bellesi explained it to New Scientist.”We show for the first time,” she said, “that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.”


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