Cognitive deficits: what sleep deprivation does to children's brains

Lack of sleep leads to numerous ailments.

Cognitive deficits: what sleep deprivation does to children's brains

Lack of sleep leads to numerous ailments. Especially in children, it has numerous negative effects. A research team in the USA finds out what these 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 from over 8,000 boys and girls.

For the study, which was published in the specialist journal "The Lancet", the team led by Fan Nils Yang evaluated the data from a total of 8,323 girls and boys who were nine to ten years old when the study began. By surveying the parents, the researchers determined how long the children slept on average each night. Because sleep physicians recommend at least 9 hours of sleep per night for children between the ages of 6 and 12, the research team classified the children's sleep as sufficient or insufficient on this basis.

All children had to undergo tests assessing their cognitive performance, once at the beginning of the study and again two years later. They were psychologically and medically examined at the same time, and their brain anatomy and function was recorded using magnetic resonance imaging and data from medical records.

The researchers then formed two groups, one containing all the children who got enough sleep and the other group containing all the children who did not get enough sleep. The researchers made sure 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 better understand the long-term effects of insufficient sleep on the brain before puberty," Ze Wang said in a statement from the university.

When evaluating the data, the scientists not only saw differences in the volume of the gray matter in the brain, but also behavioral problems and deficits in the cognitive area. On tests related to memory, decision-making, and problem-solving, the children who slept too little performed worse than their well-rested peers. In addition, impulsive behavior, depression and anxiety occurred more frequently in the young subjects with insufficient sleep than in the 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 ones sleeping habits," Wang continued. These differences were still detectable two years later. "This is a worrying finding because it suggests long-term harm in children who don't get enough sleep," Wang said.

Through follow-up research, the research team found that participants in the adequate sleep group tended to gradually sleep less over two years, which is normal as children enter their teens. In contrast, the sleep pattern of the participants in the insufficient sleep group did not change much.

The currently largest long-term study on brain development and child health in the USA provided the first indications of the long-term effects of sleep deprivation on neurocognitive development in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics therefore 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 monitors an hour before bed.

(This article was first published on Thursday, August 11, 2022.)

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