A study published this year opens up some profound doors in explaining the relationship between sleep and the brain. Until now, the actual physiological reason for sleep in humans was not known. People assumed it was to rest the body or to rest the mind. Research showed both of these to be incorrect. Yet we know that humans can die if kept awake for more than a week without sleep. Why?
The recent study showed that during sleep the cerebral spinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord is cleaned. This cleansing and rejuvenation of this very important fluid does not occur if sleep is prevented or is profoundly disrupted. This will open up whole new worlds of speculation in research – do sleep problems cause psychiatric problems because of this mechanism? What are the ramifications of failure to fully cleanse the fluid because of disrupted sleep.
Sleep research has been hindered through the years by a couple of things. First, when a human subject is asleep there is no obvious method of communication. Also, the reliability of reporting on what is happening during sleep by the sleeper himself is fraught with problems. Secondly, the early research on the stages of sleep as recorded by brain EEG (Alpha, beta, REM sleep, etc) has been ingrained in physicians and researchers. Problems or difficulties which occur outside of these known parameters were dismissed as psychiatric. For example, a small group of person that suffer from a sleep disorder whereby they feel as if they have not sleep at all, but in sleep labs all of the known tests show that they are “sleeping like a baby.” By going beyond the standard tests, the scientists finally determined that these individuals have unusually high alpha waves firing during sleep. Alpha waves are those which occur primarily during active waking hours. Now they can try to solve the problem, instead of ignoring it.
Persons that suffer from TBI very commonly have disruptive sleep and other sleep problems. It is highly recommended for TBI victims to go to a sleep lab and see if there is something there that could be corrected, if the problem is known. The problem with a TBI victim living with a sleep disorder, is that the sleep disorder will give rise to worsening of cognitive and psychiatric problems, already at hand, because of the initial brain injury. We know that sleep disruption causes a decrease in the neurogenesis of new memory brain cells in the hippocampus. We now, see above, know that disruptive sleep results in the incomplete cleaning of the cerebral spinal fluid. Sleep apnea has shown to shorten the human life span and cause cognitive deficits. If you have any questions about sleep affecting your present condition, by all means go get it checked out.