Housekeeping In the Brain to Improve its Functioning

October 22, 2014 Katharina Lochner

Research – and Common Sense – tells us that good sleep is important

But why do we need sleep?

In a TED Talk Jeff Iliff from Oregon Health and Science University explains what he and his colleagues found: The brain does what they refer to as ‘housecleaning’ while we are sleeping.

He outlines that all our organs, including the brain, are supplied with nutrients and oxygen via our blood vessels. On the other hand there is the lymphatic system that collects all waste from between the body cells and transports it to the blood vessels so that the body can rid itself from the waste. However, there are no lymphatic vessels in the brain. But there is a less space consuming solution: cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). It surrounds the brain and waste is dumped into it in order for it to be transported into the blood. For this purpose the CSF is pumped inside the brain along the blood vessels – while we sleep. Jeff Iliff says that the brain puts off cleaning away the waste when it is busy while we are awake and then does the housecleaning while we are sleeping.

One of the possible effects of waste not being cleared out is the accumulation of a protein called amyloid beta, one that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Jeff Iliff cautions against interpreting the results such that lack of good sleep causes Alzheimer’s. But he points out that good sleep is crucial for keeping our brain clean and thus well-functioning.

This sounds a bit like our brain was resting while we are sleeping. However, this is not the case as a lot of research shows. It does not rest while we are sleeping and it does even not rest when we are actively trying to rest it such as while meditating.

So there is always something going on in our brain – including housekeeping at night!

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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