A new study shows that a recently discovered system that flushes waste from the brain is primarily active during sleep, giving fresh meaning to the old adage that a good night’s sleep clears the mind.
This revelation could transform scientists’ understanding of the biological purpose of sleep and point to new ways to treat neurological disorders.
“This study shows that the brain has different functional states when asleep and when awake,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of theUniversity of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Center for Translational Neuromedicine and lead author of the article.
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“In fact, the restorative nature of sleep appears to be the result of the active clearance of the byproducts of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.”
Brain’s waste-removal system
The study, which was published in the journal Science, reveals that the brain’s unique method of waste removal — dubbed the glymphatic system — is highly active during sleep, clearing away toxins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. Furthermore, the researchers found that during sleep the brain’s cells reduce in size, allowing waste to be removed more effectively.
The purpose of sleep is a question that has captivated both philosophers and scientists since the time of the ancient Greeks. When considered from a practical standpoint, sleep is a puzzling biological state. Practically every species of animal from the fruit fly to the right whale is known to sleep in some fashion. But this period of dormancy has significant drawbacks, particularly when predators lurk about. This has led to the observation that if sleep does not perform a vital biological function then it is perhaps one of evolution’s biggest mistakes.