Sleep and brain

Sleep Deprivation in Children Affects Developing Brain

As we all know, sleep is imperative for our health and survival.  We cannot live without quality, restorative sleep.  If adults are awake longer than their brains are used to, it will respond by needing more deep sleep than is typical.  This is the slow wave stage of sleep, which can be seen on EEG (electroencephalography).

Deep-sleep waves in adults are generally more prevalent in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that plans and controls our actions, plays a role in memory, and helps with decision-making and problem solving.

Children who have been sleep deprived have more deep sleep in the posterior regions of the brain, as noted by researchers from the University Hospital Zurich.

Lack of sleep means there is locally increased deep sleep in certain portions of the brain.  Salome Kurth, lead researcher of the study from the Pulmonary Clinic at UZH, notes that children have different brains than adults, so they react differently to sleep deprivation.  In children, the deep-sleep effect seen on EEG does not happen in the front of the brain, but in the back, which is the opposite of adults.

Scientists discovered that an increased need for sleep in children, which is measured by the increase of deep-sleep waves on EEG, is linked to the optic radiation, or the myelin found in nerve fiber bundles.  This part of the brain is involved with the vision system that is primarily responsible for processing sensory input and spatial perceptions.

Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds the nerve fibers, accelerating the electrical signal transfers.  The level of myelin helps measure brain development and maturity, which increases throughout childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood.  This new study shows that the more myelin the children have in their brain regions, the more likely they will have the same deep-sleep effect as adults.

University Hospital Zurich collaborated with the University of Colorado Boulder to study the complete effects of sleep deprivation in children.

Thirteen healthy kids between the ages of 5 and 12 participated in the study.  The researchers monitored and measured their brain activity while they slept.  The EEG was connected to the children overnight in the comfort of their own homes with their families.  A total of 128 electrodes were used to measure sleep stages, which was done on two occasions.

On the first part of the study, children were put to bed at their normal time.  In the second part of the study, however, they were allowed to stay up very late to receive half or less of their normal amount of sleep.  Before the start of the study, researchers measured the amount of myelin content in their brains.  This was done using a noninvasive MRI technique.

Overall, Dr. Kurth notes, the results indicate that deep-sleep patterns are seen in a specific region of the brain that is associated with the amount of myelin in that region.  This may only be a temporary effect, such as occurring only during developmental phases of childhood or adolescence, however.

Researchers logically assumed that quality sleep was directly linked to neuronal connections in the brain that develop during childhood and adolescence.  That is why it is so important for children to have regular sleep habits and patterns during this phase of life.  International guidelines dictate the normal amount of sleep for children between 6 and 13 years of age is 9 to 11 hours each night.


Author: Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.

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