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Sleep deprivation as a neurobiologic and physiologic stressor: allostasis and allostatic load

  • Bruce S. McEwen
    Correspondence
    Tel.: +1 212 327 8624; fax: +1 212 327 8634.
    Affiliations
    Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch, Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY 10021, USA
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      Abstract

      Sleep has important homeostatic functions, and sleep deprivation is a stressor that has consequences for the brain, as well as many body systems. Whether sleep deprivation is due to anxiety, depression, or a hectic lifestyle, there are consequences of chronic sleep deprivation that impair brain functions and contribute to allostatic load throughout the body. Allostatic load refers to the cumulative wear and tear on body systems caused by too much stress and/or inefficient management of the systems that promote adaptation through allostasis. Chronic sleep deprivation in young healthy volunteers has been reported to increase appetite and energy expenditure, increase levels of proinflammatory cytokines, decrease parasympathetic and increase sympathetic tone, increase blood pressure, increase evening cortisol levels, as well as elevate insulin and blood glucose. Repeated stress in animal models causes brain regions involved in memory and emotions, such as hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, to undergo structural remodeling with the result that memory is impaired and anxiety and aggression are increased. Structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging studies in depression and Cushing's disease, as well as anxiety disorders, provide evidence that the human brain may be similarly affected. Moreover, brain regions such as the hippocampus are sensitive to glucose and insulin, and both type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus are associated with cognitive impairment and (for type 2 diabetes mellitus) increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. Animal models of chronic sleep deprivation indicate that memory is impaired along with depletion of glycogen stores and increases in oxidative stress and free radical production. Taken together, these changes in brain and body are further evidence that sleep deprivation is a chronic stressor and that the resulting allostatic load can contribute to cognitive problems, which can, in turn, further exacerbate pathways that lead to disease.
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