What effect does sleep deprivation have on children’s brains?
08/16/2022, 11:14 AM (Updated)
Lack of sleep leads to many diseases. Especially in children, it has many negative effects. A research team in the United States discovers what these things are – and raises the alarm.
Children who are often sleep-deprived in elementary school can develop a range of psychological and medical problems. That’s what researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found when they examined data on more than 8,000 boys and girls.
For the study, published in the specialist journal “The Lancet,” the team led by Fan Nils Yang evaluated data from a total of 8,323 girls and boys aged 9 to 10 when the study began. By surveying parents, the researchers determined the average amount of time the children slept each night. Since sleep physicians recommend at least 9 hours of sleep each night for children ages 6 to 12, the research team rated children’s sleep as adequate or inadequate on that basis.
All of the children had to undergo tests to assess their cognitive performance, once at the start of the study and again two years later. They were psychologically and medically examined at the same time, and their brain anatomy and function were recorded using MRI and data from medical records.
The researchers then formed two groups, one including all the children who got enough sleep and the other including all the children who didn’t get enough sleep. The researchers ensured that factors such as gender, social background, and living conditions were comparable in both groups. “We tried to match the two groups as closely as possible to understand the long-term effects of insufficient sleep on the pre-pubertal brain,” Zi Wang said in a statement from the university.
When evaluating the data, the scientists saw not only differences in the volume of gray matter in the brain, but also behavioral problems and deficits in the cognitive region. On tests related to memory, decision-making, and problem-solving, children who slept very little performed worse than their well-rested peers. In addition, impulsive behavior, depression, and anxiety occurred more frequently in young subjects with a lack of sleep than in children in the comparison group.
“We found that children who slept less than nine hours a night at baseline had less gray matter or volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and impulse control than children with healthy sleep habits,” Wang said. These differences were still detectable two years later. “This is a worrying finding because it indicates long-term harm to children who don’t get enough sleep,” Wang said.
Changes in sleep patterns
Through follow-up research, the research team found that participants in the adequate sleep group tended to fall asleep gradually for less than two years, which is normal as children enter their teens. In contrast, the sleep pattern of participants in the insufficient sleep group did not change much.
The current largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States of America has provided the first indications of the long-term effects of sleep deprivation on neurocognitive development in children. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to encourage good sleep habits in their children. Her tips include making getting enough sleep a family priority, sticking to a regular sleep routine, encouraging physical activity during the day, limiting screen time, and turning off all screens an hour before bed.
(This article was first published on Thursday, August 11, 2022.)