Night shift work is known to have adverse impacts on health, which can include impairing vigilance and compromising brain health. Now new research sheds light on how stress the brain may experience due to one night of total sleep loss differs between men and women, as well as dives into the central nervous system (CNS) biomarkers of those with normal weight versus those with obesity under night shift-type conditions. 

Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden investigated 47 men and women with either normal weight or obesity on two study occasions: one night of sleep loss and one night of sleep. After each night, they collected blood to determine blood markers indicative of neurodegeneration. Their findings are published in Translational Psychiatry.

After sleep loss, women exhibited higher blood levels of neurofilament light chain, a potential blood biomarker to detect neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders. No such rise was observed in men. 

The researchers also found that participants with obesity, but not those with normal weight, exhibited higher levels of the protein tau, which can be detected in people who experience traumatic brain injury. 

“Our sex- and weight-specific findings suggest that certain groups may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of sleep loss on brain health than others,” says Lieve van Egmond, a PhD. student at Uppsala university and the first author of the study, in a message to Sleep Review. “However, in the long run, a good night’s sleep is a prerequisite for everyone’s brain health.”

Intriguingly, both women and those with obesity struggled more with staying awake during the night of sleep loss, which may have burdened their brain health response, as suggested by the observed increases in CNS health biomarkers. 

“Our findings add evidence to a growing literature suggesting that sleep loss is stressful for the brain. Moreover, if experienced over a long time, sleep loss may increase our risk for brain diseases such as Alzheimers’ diseases,” says senior author Christian Benedict, PhD, an associate professor at Uppsala University, in a message to Sleep Review.

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