Poor sleep can be devastating for a pre-teen’s brain

Bedtime for adolescents is hardly ever fun. According to a new study, however, moms and dads apparently have the right idea when they make sure their kids are in bed at a reasonable hour. Scientists from Boston’s Children’s Hospital report inadequate sleep can be absolutely devastating for the developing pre-teen mind and potentially lead to memory, attention, and emotional problems later in life.

While a plethora of studies have found that sleep is important, this work provides more detail than ever before as to what can happen if a young mind stays awake for too long.

“Early adolescence is a critical time in brain development,” says lead researcher Caterina Stamoulis, Ph.D., who directs the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston Children’s, in a media release. “Preteens’ brain circuits are rapidly maturing, particularly those supporting higher-level thought processes like decision-making, problem-solving, and the ability to process and integrate information from the outside world. We show that inadequate sleep could have enormous implications for cognitive and mental health for individual children and at the population level.”

This first-of-its-kind research project analyzed sleep and brain imaging data collected from over 5,500 adolescents (ages 9-11). Each child’s parent answered an extensive sleep survey on their child. The surveys asked about a variety of sleep issues such as trouble falling asleep, waking up frequently, difficulty falling back asleep, difficulty waking up, snoring, breathing issues, and nightmares.

Meanwhile, the team collected brain data for each pre-teen via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), performed while the subjects were at rest. From there, researchers identified and examined relevant brain regions using complex computational analysis.

Lack of sleep affects all areas of the brain

That process led to the revelation that multiple elements of poor sleep display a connection to less efficient, flexible, and resilient brain networks among pre-teens. Such elements include taking a long time to fall asleep, waking frequently in the night, short overall sleep time, and sleep-disordered breathing. Scientists also observed “abnormal” network changes within various brain regions of poor sleepers, including multiple cortical areas, the thalamus, basal ganglia, hippocampus, and cerebellum.

In simpler terms, the negative impact of poor sleep on the adolescent brain appears to be widespread and perhaps even all-encompassing.

“The network abnormalities we identified can potentially lead to deficits in multiple cognitive processes, including attention, reward, emotional regulation, memory, and the ability to plan, coordinate, and control actions and behaviors,” Dr. Stamoulis adds.

It’s also worth noting that some racial and gender disparities emerged in the results as well. Non-white adolescents displayed “disproportionate unhealthy effects” on a neurological level in response to poor sleep. Girls also tended to sleep less (8-9 hours) than boys (9-11 hours) and generally took longer to fall asleep.

The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex Communications.

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