Sleep Deprivation does more than make you feel groggy the next day. It affects your brain and even causes long-term problems if the sleeplessness is ongoing. This happens even before your brain cells change or sustain irreversible damage. Hence, you feel the effects of sleep loss on your brain health.

The Hallmarks of Sleep Deprivation

Men and Women Sleep Deprived on an Airport Waiting for the Flight Going Home

Image: CC by 2.0, Dov Harrington, via Flickr

The problems caused by sleep loss appear as not limited to being tired. Your brain does not work well even after one night of insufficient or missed sleep. Then, you experience a slower response time at work or other activities.

Emotional Responses

Your emotions get different, too, the day after a sleepless night. Probably, you do not show much emotion on your face. So, you possess a neutral or scowling look on your face even if you feel happy.

How you perceive other people’s emotions changes, too. A brain without enough sleep registers a positive or neutral look on some else’s face as negative. This happens so you get prone to arguments and misunderstandings when you get an all-nighter.


You probably feel unhinged or loopy after a sleepless night. But, even one night of no sleep causes some people to experience delirium.

Delirium, in the truest sense of the word, doesn’t mean exhilarated or happily disoriented. A disoriented person does not know where they settled. Also, with how they got there, or even recognize the people around them.

Studies show that 24 hours without sleep cause symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia, even in healthy individuals. Sleep loss trigger biomarkers of psychosis.  Accordingly, via a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Insomnia and Your Unusual Behavior

Woman Consulting Her Insomnia and Unusual Behavior to a Psychiatrist

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People who develop insomnia after being hospitalized for a long time develop unusual behavior. Partially, this happens due to the change in sleep patterns caused by 24/7 lights and sounds in their room or the building corridors.

This happens to be called as ICU delirium or ICU psychosis. Patients get better and resume regular sleep patterns after leaving the ICU.

UCLA researchers kept 12 epilepsy patients awake the night before their surgeries to study why the brain becomes foggy after a sleepless night. Brain scans showed brain cells were slower to respond, and some regions of the brain seemed to take “cat naps” and cause corresponding mental lapses.


Seeing images that don’t exist comes as another symptom of chronic sleep loss. Scientists aren’t sure if hallucinations from sleeplessness are true hallucinations (like the ones schizophrenic people experience.)

Some experts feel that the hallucinations you see after prolonged wakefulness. This happens as mere misperceptions due to your inability to focus.

Sleepwalker Lady Carrying a Pillow in front of a Shoes Store Sleepless

Image: CC 0 by Public Domain, Engin_Akyurt, via Pixabay


Even one night of lost sleep results in a dangerous phenomenon called “microsleep”.  You fall asleep involuntarily for about 30 seconds. Then, your eyes even stay open, although you get unable to process information.

The brain goes into a sleep state uncontrollably during microsleeps. Even if you wake yourself up, you soon fall into another microsleep. Microsleep happens to be caused by short or long-term sleep loss.

Moreover, it causes injury or even death. A driver dozing off at the wheel happen as the best-known type of microsleep accident. Even off the road, this sleep disorder cause injury. For example, you hit your head on your desk if you fall asleep involuntarily at home or work.

Sleep and Brain Health

Recovery sleep isn’t always sufficient for reversing the effects of sleep loss. Probably, everyone works at irregular hours and take shift work. So, you don’t get enough sleep daily or even several times a week. Further, the resulting sleep debt causes permanent damage.

Long periods of sleeplessness impair neurological cell function. After a while, it kills brain cells. Studies now show sleep deprivation and the brain occurs as a life-altering or deadly combination. Besides, this takes place with an irreversible damage that occurs from prolonged and insufficient sleep.

The Locus Coeruleus (LC)

Locus Coeruleus in the Isodendritic core components

Image: CC by A-SA 3.0, Grinberg LT, Rueb U and Heinsen H, via Wikipedia Commons

A part of the brain called the Locus Coeruleus (LC) remains linked to arousal regulation, wakefulness, memory, cognitive function, and emotional responses. In a sleep study on mice, researchers noticed LC neurons deal with short-term sleep loss and long-term sleeplessness. This diminishes brain function and eventually lead to the loss of brain cells.

In an experiment, mice in a University of Pennsylvania study experienced short-term sleep loss. Conclusively, LC neurons produced a protein to shield their brains from damage. Antioxidants also release even more protection against stress and cell breakdown.

The Experiment

Mice were placed on a sleep schedule similar to shift workers, with long periods of wakefulness. Extended sleep loss caused LC neurons to stop protecting cells with as much authority.

LC neurons in the lab mice started to die after extended sleep loss. The mice lost 25 percent of the LC neurons after several days of imitating a shift worker schedule.

The Brain’s Housekeeping Mechanism

Deep brain stimulation electrode placement reconstruction

Image: CC by A-SA 4.0, Andreashorn, via Wikipedia Commons

Research shows chronic sleep deprivation causes brain cells to eat themselves. An Italian study divided mice into two groups.  People in one group sleep for as long as they wanted or were kept awake for eight hours more than normal. The other group of mice kept awake for five days straight.

The results showed that glial cells. This clean other cells out of your brain when they no longer get needed. This happens to be activated after sleep loss. A glial cell called an astrocyte rewires the brain by getting rid of the unneeded synapse.  And, microglial cells take out debris and damaged cells.

The Efficiency

Astrocytes became active in six percent of well-rested mice. Here, eight percent of mice stayed awake for eight extra hours. The chronically deprived mice had active astrocytes in 13.5% of their brain synapses.

A proper amount of “housecleaning” is necessary to keep your brain working efficiently. The sleep loss activates astrocytes and microglial cells. Ultimately, this leads to dementia or Alzheimer’s if you don’t get enough sleep.

Short-Term Sleep Loss

Teenager Student Experiencing Short-Term Sleep Loss

Image: CC 0 by Public Domain, alexramos10, via Pixabay

One night of sleep deprivation and the brain raised blood concentration in brain cells. This occurs by 20 percent in young Swedish men. The subjects spent two nights in a sleep lab. Also, one night they slept eight hours and the other night they stayed awake.

The men gave fasting blood samples before and after each experiment. After the sleepless night, levels of the brain molecules NSE and S-100B increased by 20 percent.  High levels of these molecules in the blood usually indicate compromised brain tissue or a problem with the brain-blood barrier.

You may be unable to avoid an occasional sleepless night. But, it is in your best interests, including your brain health. You do this to get seven or eight hours of restful sleep each night.

What Happens if You Stay Awake for Days?

A 1989 study on lab rats found that all the rats died or faced certain death after going without sleep for 11 to 32 days. It’s not known if humans will die from total loss of sleep. Eventually, you fall asleep after a day (or even a few days) of sleeplessness.

A Chinese man died in 2012 after not sleeping for 11 days. But some researchers believe sleep deprivation effects alone did not cause the man’s death. Although reports said he was in good health before the incident. However, it’s likely that he possessed some undiagnosed ailment that contributed to his death.

The 26-year-old man stayed up to watch soccer matches, drank and smoked. Together with the effects of alcohol and cigarettes and combined with the sleep loss, hastened his death. The news reports at the time said he] died in his sleep.

Sleep is Important for Overall Health

Red-Haired Woman Sleeping Deeply with the Trees

Image: CC 0 by Public Domain, Engin_Akyurt, via Pixabay

The studies on sleep deprivation and the brain show extended sleep loss. This causes permanent damage to cells and affects your thinking process. How the loss of and damage to brain cells influences the individual.

Also, it depends on how chronic the problem occurs and the person’s age and overall health. When you suffer from an ongoing sleep deficit, it compromises more than your brain health.

If you have erratic sleep schedules or work long hours, you develop diabetes, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems. The cognitive impairment caused by long-term sleep loss makes it more likely you experience falls and other accidents.

After 24 sleepless hours, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol and your blood pressure rise. Furthermore, one or two days of no sleep lowers your body’s internal temperature. It compromises your immune system and interferes with your body’s ability to metabolize glucose.

The Perspective of Sleep Deprivation

Depriving your body of sleep lowers your quality of life, cognitive function and puts you at risk for many diseases. Why risk your health and safety with insufficient sleep?

If you do shift work, use blackout shades or noise-canceling headphones to help you sleep better during the day. Also, there are ways to improve the quality of your sleep, regardless of your work schedule.

Ultimately, avoid dire consequences of sleep deprivation and the brain by getting seven to nine hours sleep. (Older adults need seven to eight hours.)  So, resume a regular sleep schedule the next day if you do stay up all night.


Featured Image: CC by 2.0, bark, via Flickr

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