Sleep-deprived children have neurocognitive differences that correlate with mental health risk

The results of the study confirm that nine hours of sleep is an important indicator for children of primary age.

The results of the study confirm that nine hours of sleep is an important indicator for children of primary age.

New evidence suggests that children who don’t get enough sleep have neurocognitive differences that may contribute to mental disorders later in life.

The study, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, followed more than 8,300 9- and 10-year-olds for two years. The study found that those who did not get enough sleep had behavioral and neural differences compared to children who got enough sleep.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They explained that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children between the ages of 6 and 12 get at least 9 hours of sleep each night. Research consistently shows that many children routinely fail to meet this benchmark.

Given the important neurocognitive development that occurs between ages 6 and 12, the researchers wanted to see if sleep deprivation would lead to noticeable neurocognitive differences. The answer they found was yes.

Study participants were divided into two cohorts based on whether or not they got at least 9 hours of sleep. Patients were examined with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), their medical records were evaluated, and they and their parents were asked to fill out surveys. The same assessments were made two years later.

Ze Wang, MD, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and corresponding author of the study, said the data showed significant gaps between those who got enough sleep and those who didn’t.

“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 less volume in certain areas of the brain responsible for attention, memory and inhibition control, compared to those with healthy sleep habits,” Wang said in a press release. “These differences persisted after two years, an alarming finding that suggests long-term harm to those who don’t get enough sleep.”

Wang is a professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Maryland.

The finding could have long-term implications for children, as the differences identified by Wang and colleagues are linked to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and impulsive behavior.

The authors also found that the cohort of children with sufficient sleep gradually decreased their amount of sleep as they aged, a natural change for children as they become teenagers. However, those with insufficient sleep as young children had little change in their sleep habits as they got older.

The patients in this study were part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a long-term NIH effort to understand how children’s brains develop over time and how external factors influence that development.

Wang said one question that will need to be answered is how sleep duration compares to other factors in terms of its contribution to neurocognitive development.

“We tried to match the two groups (sufficient sleep and insufficient sleep) as closely as possible to help us more fully understand the long-term impact of too little sleep on the brain before puberty,” he said. “Further studies are needed to confirm our finding and to see if any interventions can improve sleep habits and reverse neurological deficits.”

In the meantime, he said these data confirm the importance of sleep and confirm the American Academy of Pediatrics’ sleep recommendations.

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