A new study has found that not getting enough sleep could have a detrimental impact on children’s brain development and lead to cognitive difficulties later on.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health on Saturday, involved 8,300 children aged 9 to 10. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine reviewed MRI images, medical records, conducted surveys and followed up with the children two years later.
According to the study, about half of the children in the study cohort got enough sleep while the other half did not get enough sleep.
Each child from both groups was compared to their “matched pair” from the other group, and the researchers controlled for confounding variables that might also impact brain development, such as gender, puberty, physical health indicators and socioeconomic status.
“We tried to match the two groups as closely as possible to help us better understand the long-term impact of poor sleep on preadolescent brains,” said study author Ze Wang. in a press release.
The researchers found that children who got insufficient sleep had poorer development of the parts of the brain responsible for memory and intelligence.
These differences in brain development are also correlated with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and impulsive behaviors, the researchers said.
“We found that children who had insufficient sleep, less than nine hours a night, at the start of the study had less gray matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory and inhibition control compared to those with healthy sleep habits,” Wang said in the statement.
“These differences persisted after two years, a concerning finding that suggests long-term harm for those who don’t get enough sleep.”
But in follow-up assessments, the researchers also found that children who got enough sleep gradually began to sleep less. There was little change in sleep patterns among the insufficient sleep group, according to the study.
Health Canada recommends 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night for 5 to 1 year olds and 8 to 10 hours for 14 to 17 year olds.
The researchers say this is the first study to examine the long-term impacts of lack of sleep on children’s neurocognitive development. The authors say the findings “highlight the critical need for early intervention” when it comes to ensuring children get enough sleep to facilitate healthy brain development.
“Further studies are needed to confirm our finding and to see if interventions can improve sleep patterns and reverse neurological deficits,” Wang noted.