Enhancing sleep after a head injury may help prevent some damage to brain cells, according to a study in rats published March 23 in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers at University Hospital of Zurich, Switzerland found that enhancing the slow-wave cycle of sleep after head trauma minimized damage to axons—the thin extensions that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells—and helped preserve normal brain function. The finding may offer a treatment strategy for a condition that has very few effective therapies. Molecular waste products build up in the brain after head injury. Recent studies indicate the brain clears out this molecular buildup during the slow-wave stage of sleep where brain activity synchronizes into high-amplitude waves.
The researchers investigated whether enhancing slow-wave sleep after a head injury could mitigate axonal injury in rats. One day after injury and continuing for the next five, researchers modulated the animals’ sleep. They found that rats receiving treatments to enhance slow-wave sleep were better able to recognize familiar objects than the untreated rats. In addition, the researchers found that levels of a biomarker for diffuse axonal injury were reduced nearly 80 percent in animals that had experienced enhanced sleep compared to untreated rats.
While further study is needed, the work suggests slow-wave sleep administered immediately after a brain injury helps block axon damage and preserve normal brain function. “This study provides important evidence that manipulating sleep may be a promising avenue to enhance recovery after TBI.”