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The Remarkable New Discovery About What Your Brain Does While You Sleep

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The Remarkable Discovery About What Your Brain Does While You Sleep

We know the brain does beautiful things while we are sleeping. Sleep is important for consolidating learning, storing memories, finding creative solutions to problems and processing emotional issues. Recently, scientists have added to its list of heroics and the findings and what they have discovered is fascinating.

Research has found that sleep has a(nother) remarkable function. Sleep literally cleanses your mind by opening hidden caves in the brain and clearing out toxins.

Researchers have demonstrated that during sleep, the space between brain cells expands, allowing for the flushing of toxins that build up in the central nervous system during the hours we are awake.

‘Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state,’ Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

The study, published in Science, shows that during sleep a plumbing system called the glymphatic system seems to open, allowing fluid to flow rapidly through the brain and wash away toxins that have accumulated between the cells.

‘It’s as if Dr Nedergaard and her colleagues have uncovered a network of hidden caves and these exciting results highlight the potential importance of the network in normal brain function,’ Roderick Corriveau, Ph.D., a program director at NINDS.

Researchers made the discovery by injecting dye into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of mice. The CSF is a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. (Researchers used mice in the study because of their striking genetic and biological similarity to humans.)

When the mice were unconscious, either asleep or anaesthetised, the dye flowed rapidly but when the same mice were awake, the dye barely flowed at all.

From this, the researchers tested the theory that the space between brain cells increased depending on whether the mice were conscious or unconscious. To do this, they inserted electrodes into the brain to directly measure the space between cells.

They found that when the mice were asleep or anaesthetised, the cellular structure of their brains changed dramatically, with the space inside their brains increasing by 60%.

When we are awake, the CSF mostly covers the surface of the brain. When we sleep, the CSF is able to move deep inside. The effect is striking – potential neurotoxins, like β-amyloid, which have been associated with Alzheimer’s, are cleared twice as fast while we are sleeping as while we are awake.

Previous research has suggested that toxic molecules involved in neurodegenerative disorders collect in the space between brain cells. Nedergaard and her colleagues tested whether the glymphatic system controls this, by injecting the mice with a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease and measuring the length of time it lasted in their brains when they were asleep or awake. The protein disappeared faster in mice brains when the mice were asleep. This finding suggests the critical role of sleep in clearing toxic molecules from the brain.

Further research is needed to see if the results hold true in humans, but they may have broad implications for our understanding and treatment of neurological disorders.

This study offers preliminary explanations for the observations that many neurological disorders like strokes and dementia are associated with poor sleep patterns. Specifically, lack of sleep may impede the brain from cleaning out toxins, lead to a build-up and ultimately, long-term damage.

As put so eloquently by the researchers, ‘We need sleep. It cleans up the brain.’

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2 Comments

Steve Cripe RN

This article only serves to highlight why it is so vital that physicians take their patient’s insomnia seriously, and treat it aggressively. Too many doctors are afraid to treat insomnia with medications.

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Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefull Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefully they’ll make plenty - it’s one of the ways they’ll learn and grow. We won’t always be able to love them out of a bad decision, but we want to be the ones they come to when the mess unfolds. 
When they get it really wrong, they’ll know it. They’ll also know exactly what we think. Of course we’ll be tempted to remind them over and over of what they’ve done and the fallout from that, but it will be useless. There is no new wisdom in telling them ‘I told you so’, and it also runs the risk of switching them off to our influence and guidance at a time they need it most. 
There will be wisdom in the mess for sure, and the best way to foster the discovery is to make a safe space for this to happen - and there is no safer space than in their connection with you. 
When we prioritise connection above lectures, criticism, or judgement, we clear the path for self-reflection. This is where the magic happens. When they feel safe with us, and free from shame or disconnection, we have enormous power to facilitate growth - ‘Can you tell me what happened? I know you’re a great kid and I’m wondering what made this feel like a good decision? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but it has, and I’m wondering how you might put things right? Do you need my help with that?’ When we strip it back to bare, discipline was always meant to be about teaching, and this will never happen when there is shame or when they feel disconnected from us. You are their everything. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to disappoint you - but they will, lots of times. 
With every one of their bad decisions is an opportunity to guide them towards growth, but only if we keep them close and hold their hearts gently amidst the breakage. When we keep their hearts open to us, they will open their minds and their mouths too. They will talk and they will listen, and they will know that even when their behaviour is ‘questionable’, they are our everything too.

Our kids are going to make bad decisions. Hopefully they’ll make plenty - it’s one of the ways they’ll learn and grow. We won’t always be able to love them out of a bad decision, but we want to be the ones they come to when the mess unfolds.
When they get it really wrong, they’ll know it. They’ll also know exactly what we think. Of course we’ll be tempted to remind them over and over of what they’ve done and the fallout from that, but it will be useless. There is no new wisdom in telling them ‘I told you so’, and it also runs the risk of switching them off to our influence and guidance at a time they need it most.
There will be wisdom in the mess for sure, and the best way to foster the discovery is to make a safe space for this to happen - and there is no safer space than in their connection with you.
When we prioritise connection above lectures, criticism, or judgement, we clear the path for self-reflection. This is where the magic happens. When they feel safe with us, and free from shame or disconnection, we have enormous power to facilitate growth - ‘Can you tell me what happened? I know you’re a great kid and I’m wondering what made this feel like a good decision? What can you do differently next time? I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but it has, and I’m wondering how you might put things right? Do you need my help with that?’ When we strip it back to bare, discipline was always meant to be about teaching, and this will never happen when there is shame or when they feel disconnected from us. You are their everything. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to disappoint you - but they will, lots of times.
With every one of their bad decisions is an opportunity to guide them towards growth, but only if we keep them close and hold their hearts gently amidst the breakage. When we keep their hearts open to us, they will open their minds and their mouths too. They will talk and they will listen, and they will know that even when their behaviour is ‘questionable’, they are our everything too.
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