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Lack of sleep ‘affects cognitive development in children’

Less than nine hours a night can also lead to behavioural and mental health challenges, study finds

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Children who have less than the recommended nine hours of sleep each day are more likely to experience cognitive, mental health and behavioural challenges, a new study has found. 

The study took data from the ongoing NIH Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD), which involves almost 12,000 nine and ten-year-olds, who will be followed for a decade as they move through adolescence into young adulthood and will be assessed for their brain health, structure and function. 

The research team – led by Dr Ze Wang of the University of Maryland – found that children in the insufficient sleep group at the start of the study had more mental health and behavioural challenges than those who got sufficient sleep. 

These included impulsivity, stress, depression, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, and thinking problems. 

The children with insufficient sleep also had impaired cognitive functions such as decision making, conflict solving, working memory, and learning. 

Brain imaging at the start of the study and at the follow-up two years later showed differences in brain structure and function in the insufficient sleep group compared to the sufficient sleep group. 

The findings suggest that sleep affects learning and behaviour through specific brain changes.

“Children who had insufficient sleep—less than nine hours per night—at the beginning of the study had less grey matter or smaller volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control, compared to those with healthy sleep habits,” Dr Wang explains. 

“These differences persisted after two years, a concerning finding that suggests long-term harm for those who do not get enough sleep.”

The impact of insufficient sleep on this age group was assessed through identifying 4,000 participants who generally had nine or more hours of sleep each day, compared to a similar number who did not. 

The groups were matched on factors including sex, household income, body mass index and puberty status. 

Because the ABCD study is ongoing, the researchers note that there will be opportunities to add more follow-up measurements and build on their results. 

“Additional studies are needed to confirm our findings and to see whether any interventions can improve sleep habits and reverse the neurological deficits,” Dr Wang adds.

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