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

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises children aged 6 to 12 to sleep for 9 to 12 hours per night on a regular basis.
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Less than nine hours of sleep per night results in mental health issues, cognitive decline, and less gray matter in certain parts of the brain. Elementary school-aged children who get less than nine hours of sleep each night show significant differences in some brain regions responsible for memory, intelligence, and well-being compared to those who get the advised nine to 12 hours of sleep per night, according to a recent study led by University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) researchers.

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

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In order to promote optimal health, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises children aged 6 to 12 to sleep for 9 to 12 hours per night on a regular basis. No research has looked at the long-term effects of inadequate sleep on pre-teens’ neurocognitive development.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study included more than 8,300 kids between the ages of 9 and 10 who provided the researchers with data. They looked at MRI scans, medical records, and surveys that the participants and their parents had filled out both when they first signed up for the study and at a two-year check-up when they were between the ages of 11 and 12. ABCD research, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the largest long-term investigation of child health and brain development in the US.

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“We found that children who had insufficient sleep, less than nine hours per night, at the beginning of the study had less gray matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory and inhibition control compared to those with healthy 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 concerning finding that suggests long term harm for those who do not get enough sleep.”

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This is one of the first studies to show the possible long-term effects of sleep deprivation on young children’s neurocognitive development. Additionally, it offers strong support for the 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 sufficient sleep group tended to gradually sleep less over two years, which is normal as children move into their teen years, whereas 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 could impact how much a child sleeps and affect brain and cognition.

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

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

The study was funded by NIH. Fan Nils Yang, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Wang’s laboratory is a study co-author. Weizhen Xie, PhD, a researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is also a study co-author. 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 crucial study finding that points to the importance of doing long-term studies on the developing child’s brain,” said E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, UM Baltimore, and the John 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 detrimental that can be to a child’s development.”

(With ANI inputs)

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