The Neuroscience of Sleep

What purpose does sleep serve?

  • girl waking upSleep allows scope for the brain to;
  • Clean the brain – it allows space for the glymphatic system to drain away soluble waste proteins and metabolic products that would otherwise build up in the brain and thus reduce its effectiveness
  • Consolidate memory – it provides the time and space for the brain to filter through the information it has taken on board, and to integrate that which it retains. This can either reinforce, or change existing patterns of belief and behaviour
  • Dreams – while we sleep, activity in the logical, decision making areas of the brain decreases, providing us with the opportunity to experience moments of insight

What are the consequences of a lack of sleep?

  • An increase in the build-up of waste products, and a consequent increase in the risk of disease
  • Epigenetic changes – there is a reduction in synaptic plasticity, and this leads to more rigid thinking
  • A lack of dream sleep – this leads to a decrease in creativity and innovation

What can help to improve our sleep?

  • girl sitting bed darknessRaise your body temperature before bed – it’s the cooling of the body temperature that acts as a signal for sleep. So, starting with a higher temperature means there’s a more rapid cooling and hence a better chance of falling asleep
  • Keep fit – regular aerobic exercise helps prepare the body for sleep
  • Keep cool and dark – the ideal room temperature is between 15 – 19oC. Use black out curtains or blinds to reduce light, and remove electronic devices.
  • Alpha wave music – this can also be helpful in preparing the brain for sleep


Addressing our children's sleep debt | Roxanne Prichard

J. Roxanne Prichard, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Thomas. She earned a B.A. in Biopsychology from Transylvania University in 1998, and her doctorate in Neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004. Her graduate work focused on the neuroanatomical systems that coordinate sleep responses to light. She regularly leads continuing educational workshops and public lectures on sleep and health.

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