By Dr. Anthony Policastro

The University of Maryland recently published a study in the medical journal titled Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. They studied sleep in children.

The study looked at 8,300 children. The children were all 9 or 10 years of age. They did brain MRI’s on children and compared them with average sleep time. They broke the groups into less than nine hours of sleep per night or more than nine hours of sleep per night. 

The results showed that there were changes in the brains of children who had less than nine hours of sleep per night. The changes showed decreased brain volume in certain areas for the children with less than nine hours of sleep. Those areas involved were the areas that affected attention, memory and inhibition control. 

They repeated the MRI’s two years later when the children were 11 or 12 years of age. The MRI’s showed that the changes persisted for the extended period.

This study first appeared in a news article suggesting that children who slept less had damaged brains. When I looked at it, my initial thought was they have different brains. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are damaged.

The areas that were involved in the brain were ones that are common issues in children with ADHD. They have trouble with attention. They have trouble with inhibition control. Memory is not always affected.

This led to the question about which comes first. Do the changes in the brain result in lesser hours of sleep? Or, do the lesser hours of sleep result in changes in the brain?

We know that children with ADHD often have disrupted sleep patterns. In some cases it is because their minds are going a mile a minute when they lie down to sleep.

In 2021 a study summarized all the MRI studies that have been done on children with ADHD. Their conclusion was a resounding “We don’t know.” They recommended that studies need to continue. 

However, one comment they did make in their conclusion was that children with ADHD have “smaller global and regional brain structure indices.” That is similar to the findings of decreased brain volume in the patients with less than 9 hours of sleep per night.

It leads to a chicken and egg kind of situation. Do the brain changes precede the sleep issues and cause them? Or do the sleep issues cause the brain changes? Right now we do not know.

Before you read the headline and try to force your child to get nine or more hours of sleep at night, remember a very basic pediatric principle. There are three things you cannot make your child do. 

One is you cannot force them to eat. The second is you cannot force them to go to the bathroom. The third is you cannot force them to sleep. They will win the battle every time. 

There is no question that sleep is important. However, sounding the alarm that decreased amounts of sleep damage the brain is a little premature.

COVID update- Nationally, the total number of new cases remained about the same. They were 666,000 this week after being 657,000 last week.

Sussex County remains in the high risk zone again this week. However, the good news is that the number of new cases in the county has dropped from 575 last week to 419 this week. That is the lowest it has been since July 8 when the BA5 surge began.