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What Happens to Brain Synapses During Sleep?

Updated May 16, 2024
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The human brain is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating subjects in scientific research. Despite being the focus of intense study, there are multitudes of unanswered queries about how powerful it is and what it’s capable of. One of the most intriguing questions about the human brain is what happens during sleep.

In 2017, psychiatry professors Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison published the results of four years of sleep research. Using high-resolution 3-D electron microscopy, they photographed and analyzed nearly 7,000 synapses in two parts of the mouse cerebral cortex. They discovered that, at least in mice, the brain’s synapses (connections between neurons) shrink by almost 20 percent during sleep.

The researchers extrapolated their findings to humans, inferring that our brains go through the same process of shrinking to rest and prepare for the next day. By growing stronger, the synapses are better able to receive new information and learn. Our brains are constantly bombarded with stimuli, making rest periods essential. Without them, the synapses would essentially become overloaded.

Sleep is essential not only for our brains but also for our physical health. Of course, we’ve all experienced nights where sleep does not come easily. As a result, we often find that our memory, attention span, and ability to learn decline when we go without sleep. Energy levels, mood, and motivation are also affected.

Don’t skip out on sleep:

  • Aristotle was one of the earliest thinkers to suggest that sleep could be restorative for the human body. He believed sleep to be necessary to replace and rebuild what was “burned up” in the daylight hours.

  • It is estimated that anywhere from 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. Lack of sleep can lead to various issues, negatively affecting a person’s overall well-being, relationships with friends, family, and co-workers, and daily performance.

  • Sleep issues have also been linked to health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase the likelihood of accidents and injuries, as it impairs general functioning.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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