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It all sounds plausible enough, but that doesn't mean everyone is convinced. "It may not sound exciting, but I think sleep is essentially for rest," says Robert Vertes, a neuroscientist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Vertes thinks most sleep scientists are overinterpreting their data because they find it so hard to believe that our brains just need to shut down for eight hours or so every night. As for what's being done during that time, the short answer, he says, is "We don't know."
Perhaps the brain just needs to restore itself. "We've all had the experience of going to bed with a problem, getting a good night's sleep and waking up in the morning, and there's a solution," says Dr. Gregory Belenky, who recently retired as head of sleep research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., and is now at Washington State University at Spokane. But instead of thinking that extra information processing is going on during sleep, he says it makes as much sense to suggest that depleted circuits are just being rejuvenated.
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"But performance doesn't level off," Belenky notes. "It continues to tank." Why? No one knows.
In addition to refueling the brain, sleep seems to detoxify it. Animals with a high metabolic rate, like field mice and bats, use a lot of calories and generate a lot of destructive molecules called free radicals. "The brain is particularly susceptible to this because neurons, by and large, don't regenerate," says Jerome Siegel, a neuroscientist at UCLA and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Los Angeles. Maybe sleep provides necessary downtime so that the brain can deal with all those free radicals.
Some of the most provocative sleep research doesn't have anything to do with the brain at all. A few years after researchers isolated a natural hormone they called leptin, which tells the brain that the body has enough fatty tissue, Eve Van Cauter and her colleagues at the University of Chicago began to wonder whether sleep deprivation has any effect on the amount of leptin in the blood. They soon discovered that after just a couple of days in which 12 male volunteers were allowed to get only four hours of sleep a night, their leptin levels fell sharply, signaling the brain that a lot more calories were needed. Could a hormonal imbalance, brought on by staying up too long, help tip your metabolism in favor of gaining weight? Maybe. Just last week researchers at Stanford and Wisconsin reported similar results in a study of 1,000 volunteers. But it's also true that being overweight often interferes with the quality of sleep. At any rate, "sleep is not only for the brain," says Van Cauter. "It's also for the rest of the body."
How Much Is Enough?
Whatever combination of exotic or mundane things sleep turns out to be for, researchers admit they still don't know the ideal amount of it needed to keep our bodies and brains in good working order.
"There's this enormous commercial push now to convince people that if they don't get eight hours of sleep a night, there's something wrong with them," Siegel says. But in fact, there's more mythology than substance to the eight-hour figure. Back in the 1980s, a survey of more than 1 million people found that those who slept more than 71/2 hours a night tended to die a little sooner than their more sleep-deprived counterparts. But there is a wide enough variation in the data that you can't use the results to make any blanket statements about how much any individual should sleep. Nor can you assume that you're endangering your health if you sleep longer.
Besides, the findings don't take into account the quality of sleep you get. Although surveys suggest that we get less sleep than folks did a century ago, that's not necessarily a problem. "Our sleeping environments are better than they ever have been," says Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England. In Victorian workhouses, to give just one example, folks used to sit on benches and drape themselves on long ropes, called hang-overs, to sleep. They must have got used to it, Horne says.
Indeed, the sleep system can be very flexible and adapt quickly to different conditions. "It's peace of mind rather than physical comfort that counts anyway," says Horne.
So, how much sleep should you get? Most researchers take a decidedly practical stance. "If you feel sleepy the following day," says Dr. Pierre-Herve Luppi at the University of Lyons in France, "if you have episodes of sleepiness or a feeling of major fatigue throughout the day, it means you're not sleeping enough." You don't have to know what sleep is for to know that it's good for you.