Why sleep is important: Brain uses sleep to cleanse itself of toxins

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Originally published on November 21, 2013

Sleep helps cleanse the brain of toxins that are generated by daily cognition, according to a new study published in the journal science by scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center and New York University.

The study's authors also suggest some brain disorders may in part be the result of failing to clear away some toxic proteins.

During nightly rest the brain refreshes itself by removing the buildup of mental metabolites such as beta-amyloids (Aβ) and tau proteins, byproducts of a day's cogitation. Mismanagement of neural waste may slow the electrical signals across synapses and cause neurons to die. Accumulation of beta-amyloids and tau proteins could lead to Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

The brain's waste removal system, known as the glymphatic system, is more active during sleep when the glial cells that keep nerve cells alive shrink, increasing the size of the interstitial space, the gaps between brain tissue, allowing more fluid to flow through and wash the toxins away. Tiny pores on projections called "end feet" from Astrocytes, a type of glial cell, suck cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from blood vessels into the interstitial space. The clear cerebrospinal fluid enters the brain rapidly to mix with interstitial fluid and wash brain waste out to blood vessels. The waste then ends up in the liver.

The transporting of fluid across cell membranes requires a lot of energy, which might be the reason the brain needs to clean itself and process sensory information at separate times, the study's authors suggested.

Noting the link between sleep deprivation or disruption and neurodegenerative diseases, the authors suggest that neural trash removal must be one of sleep's major benefits.

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