Sleep deprivation makes the brain look old

22 February 2023

One night without sleep is all it takes for the human brain to appear older. However, the changes can be reversed.

An international team of researchers deprived 134 healthy young people of sleep. Afterwards, the brains of the subjects – who had stayed awake for more than 24 hours – showed significant changes. “These typically only appear in people one to two years older. Until now, the direct influence sleep deprivation has on the biological age of the brain had been unknown,” says Prof. David Elmenhorst from the Jülich Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine (INM-2), who led the study involving scientists from Denmark, Switzerland, the USA, China and Germany.

David Elmenhorst preparing a MRI scan
David Elmenhorst preparing a MRI scan
Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau

Biological age designates the actual physical aging condition. “For example, dementia can prematurely age the brain. So the brain of a 60-yearold can look like that of a 70-year-old,” explains the Jülich sleep researcher. Things are not that bleak, however: “After one refreshing night of sleep, the brain age of our subjects between 19 and 39 years of age returned to its initial value. In a sense, the brain ‘rejuvenated’ again.” The researchers were also able to show that partial sleep deprivation – even over several days – does not cause a significant change in brain age.

Algorithm estimates age

For the study, the team first determined the biological age of the brains. For this purpose, brain images were taken using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the biological age was estimated with the help of machine learning. In the “:envihab” sleep laboratory of the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, the researchers then studied different conditions: complete sleep deprivation, partial sleep deprivation and chronic partial sleep deprivation. Subsequently, MRI scans were again taken and compared with the original images.

Original publication:

Congying Chu, Sebastian C. Holst, Eva-Maria Elmenhorst, Anna L. Foerges, Changhong Li, Denise Lange, Eva Hennecke, Diego M. Baur, Simone Beer, Felix Hoffstaedter, Gitte Moos Knudsen, Daniel Aeschbach, Andreas Bauer, Hans-Peter Landolt and David Elmenhorst: Total sleep deprivation increases brain age prediction reversibly in multi-site samples of young healthy adults.
Journal of Neuroscience 20 February 2023, JN-RM-0790-22; DOI:

Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine, Molecular Organization of the Brain (INM-2)


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Last Modified: 19.02.2024