Researchers report that they have identified the molecular mechanism by which sleep deprivation causes memory problems. They also suggest that drug treatment may be able to prevent the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation.
Their letter was published today in the journal Nature.
“Millions of people around the world suffer from a lack of sleep,” study co-author George S. Baillie said in a University of Glasgow news release. “This research opens the door for effective treatment of the memory loss associated with this debilitating condition."
The research team studied mice that had been deprived of sleep for five hours, reports NatureNews. They detected increased levels and activity of the “PDE4” enzyme in sleepy mice.
Then they treated sleep-deprived mice with the drug rolipram. It is a PDE4 inhibitor. The treatment prevented memory deficits that normally would have appeared after sleep deprivation.
Study co-author Christopher G. Vecsey cautioned that drugs like rolipram do have side effects. He also said that the study targets only one of the negative effects that sleep deprivation can have on the brain.
Study co-author Miles D. Houslay noted that sleep deprivation has many causes.
“People suffer sleep loss not only from disease but also jet lag, looking after young babies, getting old and through types of lifestyle,” he said. “This discovery offers hope for a simple and effective treatment.”
But sleep specialist Dr. Neil Stanley expressed concerns about the potential treatment. He worries that some people may take a drug for sleep loss when lifestyle changes would be a better solution.
“We really need to be thinking about ways to achieve adequate sleep in the first place - not how to deal with the consequences," Stanley told BBC News.
"We are always going to need drugs for people with serious disorders,” Stanley added. “But we don't want to end up medicalising lifestyles. We need to go back to basics and think about the way we as a society lead our lives, and the impact this has on our sleep, rather than looking for a cure."