All parents can identify the problems that arise from their child not getting enough sleep the night before; however, there is not a whole lot of information available in medical literature that looks at how sleep deprivation affects children’s brain chemistry and early development.
First author of this new study, Salome Kurth, from the University Hospital of Zurich, noted that sleep processes may be wiring a child’s brain and affect the brain’s development and maturation. This research indicates that there is a need for increased sleep for posterior brain regions in young children. Findings were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
This information differs from the research that has been done on adults with sleep deprivation, where the effect is more concentrated in the frontal regions.
Studies have found that both adults and children who lose sleep need a period of deep sleep to recover from that loss. The recovery period is marked by electrical patterns on the non-invasive electroencephalogram (EEG) called slow-wave activity. The EEG distributes several electrodes across the entire scalp to look at various channels, which help detect the brain regions with the most slow-wave activity.
Dr. Kurth and her colleagues, Sean Deoni from Brown University and Monique LeBourgeois from University of Colorado Boulder, along with a team of students studied how 50% sleep loss would affect 13 children aged between 5 and 12 years. The children’s deep sleep patterns were measured first during a normal night of sleep. Then, they were measured again on a different night after the children were kept awake for several hours past their bedtime using activities like playing games and reading with them.
The children received only a half night’s sleep. On their EEG, they showed increased slow-wave activity in the parieto-occipital areas, which are located in the back regions of the brain. This indicates the circuitry in these brain regions may be significantly affected by sleep deprivation.
One of the cornerstones of early brain development is the myelin content, so the team also analyzed how the slow-wave activity in deep sleep correlated with this myelin content. Myelin is measured with MRI; it is the fatty material within the white matter of the brain that allows electrical information and communication to happen between the cells, allowing them to travel faster.
Dr. Kurth notes that these results indicate that sleep deprivation affects the brain in specific regions, which correlates with the myelin connections in the adjacent regions. Essentially, the more myelin in those areas, the more the effect resembles what happens in adult brains. Furthermore, it is possible that this is a temporary effect, occurring only in a sensitive period of development when the brain undergoes changes.
As with all new findings, further exploration is needed before making conclusive statements regarding how sleep deprivation affects child brain development in the long-term. In the meantime, it is sufficient to say that later bedtimes have a different effect on children’s brains than on adults’
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.