Snooze University

Can Sleep Deprivation Cause Brain Damage? [Study Summary]

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jan 16, 2022

While it’s not conclusive, current evidence does suggest that there may be long-term cognitive effects of chronic sleep deprivation.

That means that there may be brain damage in the sense that performance is impaired a bit, but not in the sense that most people think of “brain damage” as.

It’s quite a hard subject to study, so research is limited.

However, there are studies that look at the effect of sleep deprivation on brain function, although many of these are animal studies.

I’ve summarized what’s available in this post.

Brain Damage in Patients With Chronic Insomnia

Perhaps the best place to start looking for any long-term brain issues is in those with chronic insomnia. However, note that there’s a big difference between sleep deprivation and chronic insomnia.

One study found that patients with chronic insomnia had (1):

...elevated serum levels of NfH, NfL, NSE and S100B, indicating existence of damaged brain microstructure, including neurons, astrocytes and neuronal terminals, which were associated with the insomniac severity or/and cognitive dysfunction and could significantly reduce after effective therapy apart from the S100B.

So there is some evidence of brain damage in insomniacs.

On the bright side, it appears that therapy could repair most of that damage, so it doesn’t seem like most potential brain damage from sleep issues would be permanent.

One other factor to consider is that people with insomnia often have other comorbidities, so the damage in the patients in question could stem from other health issues as well, so this single study is of course not conclusive.

SummaryThere is some evidence showing significant brain damage in people with chronic insomnia, although it appears reversible with therapy.

The Effect of Sleep Deprivation on Cognitive Function

Sleep restriction is known to have some detrimental effect on cognitive function (i.e. brain performance).

It’s a good place to look if we’re looking for indications of long term potential brain damage.

A study of 97 healthy, but sleep deprived nurses (who often have to work night shifts), found that (2):

Cognitive performance was found to be impaired among shift working nurses, due to poor sleep quality and decreased alertness during wake state.

Other studies have found similar things.

One aspect in question is how sleep deprived does someone have to be to see cognitive decline?

Some studies show that cognitive function can worsen after just 24 hours of sleep deprivation (3).

SummarySleep deprivation can cause a decline in cognitive function in the short term. In other words, it affects brain performance, even though there’s research that links it to long term brain damage.

Sleep Deprivation Could Decrease Neurons

Neurons are nerve cells that are needed for all nervous system communication.

There’s some evidence that sleep deprivation could lead to neuron loss in certain regions of the brain, which could cause impaired function (4). However, this research is mainly in animal models, so we can’t really draw any conclusions.

For example, one study examined the number of neurons in the locus coeruleus, and found that (5):

...extended wake resulted in a 25–30% loss in LC neurons...In addition to a loss of LC neurons, orexinergic neurons were also lost in part (40%)

The neuron loss did not recover after a month of rest, indicating that there could be some non-reversible brain damage.

Again, this was just in mice though.

SummaryResearch on animals has shown that sleep deprivation may decrease the number of neurons in particular regions of the brain. However, no corresponding research on humans has been performed that I could find.

Sleep Deprivation May Cause Neural Inflammation

Research has shown that poor sleep quality can affect the immune system, and one of the ways this may occur is through neural inflammation, which may have other effects on brain health as well (6, 7).

There is some evidence that short-term sleep deprivation can reduce immune system response and increase markers of brain inflammation (8).

Other Potential Long-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can cause a variety of side effects in the short term. This includes nausea and anxiety.

If not improved, sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, brain damage, and even into developing chronic insomnia.

As we saw, there’s evidence that suggests that this could lead to brain damage.

Sleep is incredibly important to just about all aspects of human health. If you’re regularly having issues sleeping enough, seeing a doctor is recommended.


  1. Patients with chronic insomnia disorder have increased serum levels of neurofilaments, neuron-specific enolase and S100B: does organic brain damage exist?
  2. Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Cognitive Performance of Nurses Working in Shift
  3. The Effect of Total Sleep Deprivation on Cognitive Functions in Normal Adult Male Subjects
  4. Neural Consequences of Chronic Short Sleep: Reversible or Lasting?
  5. Extended wakefulness: compromised metabolics in and degeneration of locus ceruleus neurons
  6. Sleep and immune function: glial contributions and consequences of aging
  7. Neural Consequences of Chronic Short Sleep: Reversible or Lasting?
  8. Effects of exercise on brain and peripheral inflammatory biomarkers induced by total sleep deprivation in rats

Medical Disclaimer: The information on is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.

About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.