I need a nap, and I’m not even tired.
Nevertheless, I’ve been awake for nearly 12 hours, and my brain needs a good once over, a cerebral wash, rinse, repeat.
“Gunk” is what scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and elsewhere are calling it after a study of mice revealed that when Mickey and Minnie hit the hay, their melons went right to work getting rid of the waste that they had built up during awake mouse thinking.
The white coats found that brain cells in mice shrink during sleep, allowing the space between the cells to be cleansed more easily with the fluid designed for such custodial purposes. The scientists suspect that human brain cells go through a similar process when their humans catch some Z’s.
The research, reported in the journal Science recently, gives science and medicine more clues and direction in the ongoing progress toward finding treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The idea is that when the Sandman arrives, he opens a valve on a network of pipes, a plumbing system that flushes the accumulated waste we’ve produced while we’re awake.
Waste? Gunk? Just what are you trying to say about my thinking here, pal?
Actually, my thinking has little to do with it. The “gunk” is toxic molecules, protein waste that’s prone to gather and clot between cells like sixth-graders at a middle school dance. The proteins clog and slow the system — not unlike a balky toilet or a storm drain stuffed with tree limbs or trash.
Research and our personal experience are clear that if you’re short of sleep, you may want to catch a catnap or exercise the right to re-rack before you head for heavy machinery, surgery or manned space flight. (I might also add making some sense in about 700 words.)
Memo to humans (and mice): sleep counts — a bunch.
Scientists are particularly focused on one rather nasty little protein called a beta-amyloid that they believe over time plugs, obstructs and stops up the network, a reason Alzheimer’s and dementia are ravages of the aged.
While recent research extols the benefits of brain superfoods such as acai berries, blueberries, olive oil and walnuts, the Rochester study now adds sleep to the list of ways to keep my neural infrastructure gunk-free and rocking the firing pins on my synapses.
Apparently, sleep opens the gates for the noggin fluid to flow more freely through our beans, washing away gunky proteins and putting a shine on the brain pipes.
Nor is the difference between asleep and awake negligible. As reported in The Week news magazine and on NPR, the Rochester study’s author likened the contrast to “opening and closing a faucet.”
Almost makes a guy want to crawl under his desk, a la George Costanza, and catch 40, brain-cleaning winks.
Not that I’m suggesting Americans are a bunch of sleep-deprived, gunk-brained goofs, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans between 25 and 54 with kids are averaging 7.6 hours of brain cleaning — er — sleep a day.
Before you set your alarms, a 2012 study said Americans snoozed 8.71 hours on weekdays, essentially sleeping their lives away.
A third study from the National Sleep Foundation warned that Americans are getting only 6 hours and 55 minutes per weekday.
No one suggested we work any less (8.8 hours per day, according to the BLS) or cut down on our leisure activities (2.5 hours) to achieve more sleep.
Perhaps the new research will impact how we think about sleep and our brains, so we’ll know that a late night followed by an early morning means dirty minds.
Or, more to the point, regular long, delicious snoozes can help flush them clean.