MicroRNAs predict how brain function is affected by sleep loss

The key to predict how someone is affected by sleep loss can be found in microRNAs (miRNAs), according to a new study by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to experts, to date, many studies link sleep loss to cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and other disorders, and it is known that sleep loss has a negative impact on cognitive performance. However, these adverse effects are treated differently from person to person and little is known about how accurately these individual sleep deprivation deficits can be accurately predicted and traced.

This study is the first to note that blood microRNAs change from total sleep deprivation (TSD) for 39 hours and from psychological stress and can predict the resulting cognitive performance in adults. The authors of the study say the findings can also be used to identify those most at risk from the negative effects of sleep deprivation and should therefore receive medical help to prevent these effects.

MiRNAs are small non-coding RNAs and are key regulators of gene expression, which guide information in a gene to make functional proteins. MiRNAs typically suppress the expression of their messenger RNA targets, preventing their translation into proteins.

The findings of the new study were presented at the 32nd Annual Meeting of Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS) – SLEEP 2018, held at the Baltimore Conference Center on Sunday 3 June and Monday 4 June.
In the study, 32 healthy adults participated in a five day two-night experiment (8-hour baseline) followed by 39 hours of sleep deprivation (TSD) where they were not allowed to sleep, followed by two recovery nights of 8 up to 10 hours of sleep.

Participants were tested for their attention, memory, and cognitive performance, that is, how quickly and accurately the brain performs cognitive tests while taking blood samples at six time points and analyzing the plasma miRNAs.

From the miRNA blood sample obtained prior to the start of the study, 14 miRNAs reliably predicted behavioral attention during total sleep deprivation, 7 miRNAs reliably predicted cognitive performance in the same procedure, and 10 miRNAs reliably predicted memory performance in the same procedure again.

“These findings show for the first time that miRNAs can monitor reactions to total sleep deprivation and its harmful association with psychological anxiety and predict strong individual differences in different types of cognitive performance,” said the study’s first author, Namni Goel, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Psychiatric School. “Therefore, miRNAs are viable biomarkers of sleep deprivation, psychological stress and cognitive vulnerability in humans and can be used to identify individuals in need of countermeasures or interventions to mitigate or prevent damage associated with poor sleep.”