Sleeping less than 9 hours? Your child may develop less grey matter in brain

Less than nine hours of sleep a night results in mental health problems, cognitive decline and less gray matter in certain parts of the brain. Elementary school-age children who get less than nine hours of sleep per night show significant differences in some brain regions responsible for memory, intelligence and well-being compared to those who get the recommended nine to 12 hours of sleep per night, according to a recent study under led by researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM).

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These variations were associated with more serious mental health problems, such as sadness, anxiety and impulsive behavior, in those who didn’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep has also been linked to problems with memory, problem solving and decision-making, according to the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

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To promote optimal health, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that children ages 6 to 12 get regular 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night. The long-term effects of insufficient sleep on the neurocognitive development of pre-teens have not been studied.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study included more than 8,300 children, ages 9 to 10, who provided the researchers with data. They looked at MRI scans, medical records and surveys completed by the participants and their parents both when they first signed up for the study and at a biennial checkup when they were between 11 and 12 years old. ABCD research, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the largest long-term study of childhood health and brain development in the US.

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“We found that children who did not get enough sleep at the start of the study had less than nine hours a night, less gray matter or volume in certain brain regions responsible for attention, memory and inhibition control compared to children with sound sleep. habits,” said study corresponding author Ze Wang, PhD, professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at UMSOM. “These differences persisted after two years, a worrying finding that suggests long-term harm for those who don’t get enough sleep.”

This is one of the first studies to show the possible long-term effects of sleep deprivation on the neurocognitive development of young children. In addition, it strongly supports current guidelines for children’s sleep, according to Dr. Wang and his associates.

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In follow-up assessments, the research team found that participants in the adequate sleep group tended to sleep gradually less over two years, which is normal as children enter their teens, while the sleep patterns of participants in the insufficient sleep group did not change much. The researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, gender, puberty status and other factors that may influence how much a child sleeps and affect the brain and cognition.

“We tried to match the two groups as closely as possible to help us better understand the long-term impact of too little sleep on the pre-adolescent brain,” said Dr. Cheek. “Additional studies are needed to confirm our finding and to see if interventions can improve sleep habits and reverse neurological deficits.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to promote good sleep habits in their children. Their tips include making getting enough sleep a family priority, sticking to a regular sleep routine, encouraging physical activity throughout the day, limiting screen time, and completely eliminating screens an hour before bed.

The study was funded by NIH. Fan Nils Yang, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Wang is a co-author of the study. Weizhen Xie, PhD, a researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is also a co-author on the study. UMSOM faculty members Thomas Ernst, PhD, and Linda Chang, MD, MS, are co-principal investigators of the ABCD study at the Baltimore site, but were not involved in the data analysis of this new study.

“This is a pivotal study that highlights the importance of long-term research into the developing child’s brain,” said E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, UM Baltimore, and the John Reece. Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Sleep can often be overlooked during busy childhood days filled with homework and extracurricular activities. Now we see how damaging that can be to a child’s development.”

(with ANI inputs)

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