Being healthy is more complicated than ever. Between all of the fad diets, health supplements, and misinformation out there, it can feel overwhelming to try and keep up on top of the latest health advice. However, more and more research is showing that one overarching factor plays a role in your body’s and mind’s overall health: the amount of sleep you get each night. While many studies have confirmed that the amount of sleep you get can affect your risk of developing many serious diseases and health complications, a new study by sleep scientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) found that not getting enough sleep can actually change how brain cells communicate with another, and possibly affect how memories are encoded by the brain.

The study asked twelve epileptic patients who suffer regular sleep interruptions to perform a series of difficult cognitive tasks. Researchers found that as the amount of sleep went down, participants had a more difficult time recognizing and categorizing series of images. UCLA neurosurgeon Dr. Itzhak Fried, lead author of this new study, says that not getting enough sleep can actually prevent your brain’s neurons from functioning properly. According to Fried, the effects of sleep deprivation are similar to the effects of alcohol:

Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much. Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers. This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us. The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s over-tired brain. It takes longer for his brain to register what he’s perceiving.

The study was published in Nature Medicine. While existing research has shown that sleep deprivation can affect cognitive ability, this is the first to show the effects among actual brain cells. The researchers believe that this new discovery can fundamentally change how sleep researchers and neuroscientists go about diagnosing and treating sleep disorders and even a variety of related cognitive impairments.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician from the mountains of Western North Carolina. Contact him at [email protected]

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