Lack of sleep hampers children's brain development

29th Nov 16 | Fitness & Wellbeing

Sleep deprivation affects children's brains differently than adults', a new study claims.

Lack of sleep hampers children's brain development

Sleep deprivation damages children's brains more than previously thought, researchers warn.

Experts have long stated that we all need at least seven hours of sleep per night.

But a new study by the University Hospital of Zurich has laid bare the damage sleeplessness inflicts on all parts of a child's developing brain.

In particular, they found significant damage to the posterior brain regions - responsible for planned movements, spatial reasoning, and attention.

"The process of sleep may be involved in brain 'wiring' in childhood and thus affect brain maturation," study author Salome Kurth said. "This research shows an increase in sleep need in posterior brain regions in children."

The findings contrast with what researchers know about the effects of sleep deprivation in adults, where the effect is typically concentrated in the frontal regions of the brain.

Kurth and her colleagues studied the effects of 50 per cent sleep deprivation in a group of 13 children between the ages of 5 and 12 years. The team first measured the children's deep sleep patterns during a normal night's sleep. They then re-measured on another night after the researchers had kept the children up well past their bedtimes by reading and playing games with them.

After only getting half of a night's worth of sleep, the children showed more slow-wave activity towards the back regions of the brain - the parieto-occipital areas. This suggests the brain circuitry in these regions may be particularly susceptible to a lack of sleep.

The team also measured how this deep sleep activity correlated with the myelin content of the brain - a cornerstone of brain development. Myelin is a fatty microstructure of the brain's white matter that allows electrical information between brain cells to travel faster. It can be measured with a specific imaging technique.

"The results show that the sleep loss effect on the brain is specific to certain regions and that this correlates with the myelin content of the directly adjacent regions: the more myelin in a specific area, the more the effect appears similar to adults," explained Kurth. "It is possible that this effect is temporary and only occurs during a 'sensitive period' when the brain undergoes developmental changes."

Further exploration is needed before drawing any conclusions about how insufficient sleep affects early brain developmental processes in the longer term.

The research was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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