Posted on: April 15, 2016 at 10:45 am
Last updated: September 22, 2017 at 11:27 am

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated by The Hearty Soul’s Editors to reflect the latest scientific research about this subject. We are committed to providing you with the best information possible. You can find the article in its original form at University of Utah Health Care

What happens to your brain because of sleep? Not only does sleep help us feel rested and able to fulfill our day but it assists in cognitive functioning, keeping the brain working, and helping with creativity. It does so much for our brains that we’d be hard pressed to go without it.

Research Study: No sleep means trouble with white matter

Insomnia is linked to abnormalities in the brain’s white matter — the tissues that form connections and carry information between different parts of the brain, a small Chinese study suggests.

What Did They Find?

For the study, the researchers recruited 23 patients with primary insomnia and 30 healthy volunteers. All of the participants completed surveys that enabled study authors to evaluate their mental status and sleep patterns.

Using an advanced MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), the researchers also looked at the pattern of water movement in white matter to identify any irregularities.

They found that participants with insomnia had significantly reduced white matter “integrity” in several regions of the brain. One area was the thalamus, which regulates consciousness, sleep and alertness. Another was the corpus callosum, the area that bridges the two halves of the brain, the study authors said.

What Does It Mean?

The researchers said these disruptions occur in areas of the brain involved in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness as well as cognitive function.

The researchers explained that white matter tracts are bundles made up of long fibers of nerve cells that connect one part of the brain to another. “If white matter tracts are impaired, communication between brain regions is disrupted,” said researcher Shumei Li. She’s from the department of Medical Imaging at Guangdong No. 2 Provincial People’s Hospital, Guangzhou, China.

Although the study found an association between white tract matter abnormalities and insomnia, it wasn’t designed to prove cause-and-effect.

The body’s clock and the thalamus


“The involvement of the thalamus in the pathology of insomnia is particularly critical, since the thalamus houses important constituents of the body’s biological clock,” said Li.

Previous studies have shown that sleep deprivation can affect a variety of brain functions, Li pointed out.

Long-term results from insomnia

She noted her team’s findings suggest that long-term insomnia could accompany other mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

“Our results can potentially provide the evidence about how the lack of sleep may lead to the impairment of white matter related to emotional or cognitive disorders,” Li said.

Those who had more severe cases of insomnia or suffered from the disorder for longer periods of time had greater white matter abnormalities. The researchers suggested this could be due to the loss of myelin — the protective coating around the nerve fibers in white matter.

The study findings were published online on April 5 in the journal Radiology.

Do We Know What Causes Insomnia?

People with primary insomnia have ongoing trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. This nightly tossing and turning isn’t related to another medical condition or known cause, according to the researchers.

It can lead to daytime sleepiness and cognitive impairment. Some people with primary insomnia also suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, the researchers said.

Up to 5 percent of adults have this sleep disorder, but it’s unclear exactly why they can’t sleep and how the condition affects their brain, the researchers noted.

“Insomnia is a remarkably prevalent disorder,” said Li. “However, its causes and consequences remain elusive.”

9 Ways Sleep Affects Your Brain

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1. Sleep and your brain’s connections

The brain is constantly creating new connections while unused synapses degenerate, according to Dr. Douglas Moul, a senior sleep psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic.

“The brain sets up new connections, reformats, and breaks down connections on a daily basis — breaking down and tearing up connections are daily brain processes,” he said.

It’s still unclear, however, if treating insomnia would restore lost connections, Li said. “This is a very interesting and open question,” she said. “We are also very interested in knowing whether this damage is irreversible or not if the insomnia gets cleared up. But our current study is still not enough to answer this question.”

2. Brain maintenance

The Cleveland Clinic’s Moul said this study falls short of helping scientists gain a better understanding of why sleep is so important. “Sleep is a time for brain maintenance and repair,” he said. “Studies have demonstrated that brain maintenance and repair time is more prominent during sleep.”

However, he pointed out that the study doesn’t provide clues about why people need sleep. We have yet to understand fully why it is that sleep is so important. There are only theories, but it’s definite that sleep is really important and that your brain depends on it to recharge for the next day. We know for sure that sleep affects the brain in several ways.

3. Sleep and memories

One of the most important reasons we sleep is to consolidate long-term memories. It helps strengthen certain new neural connections while pruning back old unwanted ones. Your brain makes many connections in a day and sleep is the time when it decides which ones it needs (1). You might have experienced the benefits of this when studying for an exam or test. In one study, they proved that when learning tasks subjects performed better at recalling the task when separated by a night of sleep, compared with subjects who waited the same amount of waking hours before recalling the task (2).


4. Sleep helps fight Alzheimer’s

A recent discovery has found that our brain’s clear toxins much more rapidly while we’re asleep than when we’re awake. It would appear that the lymphatic system of the brain opens up at night and removes toxins while we sleep. When we sleep, the space between brain cells expands significantly allowing the clearing of gunk through cerebrospinal fluid. Most of this gunk is the B-amyloid protein which is a precursor to the plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. These are accumulated during the day and removed during sleep (3).

5. Sleep and cognition

It’s pretty simple if you don’t get enough sleep you’ll have a harder time at completing tasks that you otherwise would have found easy. The ability of sleep to help with cognitive functioning is something that scientists can agree on. Lack of sleep will affect your ability to do tasks considered part of higher cortical functioning, like driving (4).

6. Sleep and creativity

When people are sleep deprived, certain types of thinking seem to be more affected than others. For example, creative or divergent thinking seems to be the first thing to go when we lack sleep (5). In one study, subjects were instructed to learn a task involving numbers. People who got a night of sleep were much more successful at figuring it out compared with people who were sleep deprived (6). However, anecdotally, people have often reported creative insights during sleep or just as they were waking up.

7. Depression and insomnia

It appears that sleep and depression are intimately linked. Studies have found that people who sleep less than six hours per night or who sleep eight hours or more per night are more likely to be depressed when compared to those in the middle. And people with insomnia are many times more likely to have depression or anxiety (7). This may be due to the fact that the part of the brain that controls circadian rhythm (sleep cycle) is disrupted in depressed people (8). Which offers an explanation as to why people who are depressed usually have sleep problems.

8. Sleep affects physical health

While the body doesn’t need sleep as much as the brain, a study on radiologists who got an average of three hours of sleep during a twenty-four-hour shift demonstrated increases in contractility of their hearts, blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of thyroid hormone and the stress hormone cortisol (9). And there are a number of studies that link poor sleep patterns (either too much or too little) to mortality (10). Meaning not getting the right amount of sleep could kill you. This probably has to do with the body’s effects on hormones during sleep.

9. Sleep and the young

When kids don’t get enough sleep they are difficult to deal with and it has lots of short term ramifications, it even may affect growing brain development. Some studies have reported that children who are sleep deprived because of nighttime breathing problems are significantly more likely to have ADHD symptoms (11). In other studies, it was proven that an added amount of sleep of just eighteen minutes was linked to better grades in math and English in elementary school kids (12).

More information

The U.S. National Sleep Foundation provides more information on insomnia.


(1) NCBI. The memory function of sleep Published: February 11, 2010. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(2) NCBI. Sleep dependent motor memory plasticity in the human brain Published: 2005. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(3) NCBI. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain Published: October 18, 2013. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(4) NCBI. Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition Published: 2010. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(5)Sleep. Sleep loss and “divergent” thinking ability Published: 1988. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(6) Letters to Nature. Sleep inspires insight Published: November 17, 2003. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(7) The Journal of clinical psychiatry. The relationship between depression and sleep disturbances: a Japanese nationwide general population survey Published: 2006. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(8) PNAS. Circadian patterns of gene expression in the human brain and disruption in major depressive disorder Published: April 3, 2013. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(9) Eurekalert. Short-term sleep deprivation affects heart function Published: December 2, 2016. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(10) NCBI. Sleep duration and all-cause mortality: a systemic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies  Published: May 1, 2010. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(11) AA publications. Sleep-disordered breathing in a population-based cohort: Behavioural outcomes at 4 and 7 years Published: April 2012. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(12) Sleep Journal. School-based sleep education program improves sleep and academic performance of school-age children Published: December 1, 2016. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(13) Forbes. 7 ways sleep affects the brain (and what happens if it doesn’t get enough) Published: December 9, 2016. Accessed: December 16, 2016.

(14) Youtube. Your best year ever – The brain and sleep Published: January 6, 2014. Accessed: December 16, 2016.


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