By now, you almost certainly have run across an article like this one in the New York Post. A breathless headline about zombie brains eating themselves announces a slightly-less apocalyptic article about brain cells that are indeed eating each other. Some even mention Alzheimer’s, just for the hell of it. Your brain has gone rogue, late night television watcher! Now, brush your teeth and go to sleep, like your mom told you.
What they’re describing is body’s process of returning the building blocks of life back to a useable state. Cells die all the time. They need to be disposed of, but nature in it’s wisdom leaves no opportunity wasted. Any bit of a dead cell that can be recovered will be recovered and the rest will be washed away.
Because it appeared to early scientists that some cells are “devouring” others, the process was called “phagocytosis” (literally: devouring cells). That’s a very dramatic name for a thing. Something straight out of George Romero’s nightmares. But phagocytosis is far more banal than all that. It is routine. It is a nightly routine.
And therein lies the problem, it seems. Because this research suggests that brains that haven’t been given enough time to perform their nightly routines go a little ape-shit. Microglia, which are the neural cells that are responsible for phagocytosis in the brain, start attacking cells that aren’t either sick or dying.
Since chronic lack of sleep early in life seems to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers posit that perhaps this is the exact nexus. Sleepless people’s waste disposal system is on the blink and BOOM they’re getting Alzheimer’s. Well, maybe.
“But,” he intoned solemnly, “correlation is not causation.”
This is great research. There’s no doubt that there is a correlation that needs to be explored. Sleep deprivation may lead to Alzheimer’s, or they may both exist as symptoms of some more fundamental problem. It is even still possible that the two symptoms have nothing to do with one another.
And it’s worth noting that “chronic lack of sleep” is not the same thing as “watching too much late night television.” Sleep deprivation is a condition all it’s own that you’d know if you had. “Normal” late-night activities probably just do a bit of extra pruning, sort of like how a little alcohol is also good for the brain.
Either way, there is nothing zombie-like about what is happening. There is no monster living in your cranium. And getting half an hour’s extra sleep tonight will not cure your impending Alzheimer’s.
And maybe most importantly: the world didn’t change because we’ve discovered a new correlation between two unpleasant conditions. Relax. Have a beer. Watch television. You’re fine.