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

cognitive deficits
What sleep deprivation does to children’s brains

Lack of sleep leads to numerous ailments. Especially in children, it has several negative effects. A research team in the US finds out what it is – and sounds the alarm.

Children who are often sleep deprived in primary school can develop a number 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 journal “The Lancet”, the team led by Fan Nils Yang evaluated 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 doctors 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 adequate or inadequate on this basis.

All children had to undergo tests that assessed 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 were recorded using magnetic resonance imaging and data from medical records.

direct comparisons

The researchers then formed two groups, one containing all children with adequate sleep and the other group containing all children with insufficient sleep. The researchers ensured 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 is quoted as saying in a statement from the university.

When evaluating the data, the researchers saw not only differences in the amount of 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 didn’t get enough sleep performed worse than their well-rested peers. In addition, impulsive behaviour, 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 sleep habits,” Wang continued . These differences could still be detected two years later. “This is a worrying finding because it suggests long-term harm to children who don’t get enough sleep,” Wang said.

changes in sleep patterns

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

The currently largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States 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 enough sleep a family priority, sticking to a regular sleep routine, encouraging physical activity during the day, limiting screen time and turning off all screens an hour before bed.

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