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Pulling an all-nighter could damage brain, study shows

While pulling an all-nighter can make you feel completely drained, cranky, and out of sorts the next day, can it actually injure the brain? A new Swedish study published Tuesday in the journal Sleep indicates that it might.

In the small study conducted in 15 healthy young men, the researchers measured blood levels of certain proteins associated with brain injuries like concussions after the men slept eight hours in a sleep lab and then were kept awake all night playing board games and watching movies. The researchers found that the blood protein levels were 20 percent higher after the men pulled an all-nighter compared to when they had a full night’s rest.


“The levels found after acute brain damage, such as after concussions, are distinctly higher than those found in our study,” said study leader Christian Benedict, an associate professor of neuroscience at Uppsala University in Sweden. “That said, it would not be appropriate to claim that a single night of sleep loss is equally harmful for your brain as a head injury.”

But it does indicate that skimping on sleep can do real damage to the brain, at least in the short-term. (While no women were included in the study, Benedict said the results likely apply to them as well.)

The two proteins measured in blood samples, NSE and S100B, are important for the proper functioning of nerve cells and information processing in the brain, but they’re also considered biomarkers of cell damage.

“With this finding in mind, one could speculate that the sleep loss-induced rise in circulating levels of NSE and S100B in our study may be a result of increased neuronal damage,” Benedict said, which occurs because the brain is unable to flush out its toxins when forced to be in a continuous state of alertness. Two months ago, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers reported that the brain uses sleep as a time to remove waste products that accumulate throughout the day from the energy expended to think deep thoughts.


Whether a build up of toxins causes long term damage to the brain over time remains unknown, but Benedict speculated that skipping a night of sleep on a regular basis could lead to chronic memory loss if certain regions of the brain are damaged.

“Population-based studies have shown that elderly people with self-reported sleep disturbances have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease,” he said, “compared to those without sleep problems.”

Bottom line: Aim for 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye a night, and if you miss a few hours one night, go to bed earlier the next night to repair the damage.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.