Sleepless in America — and the science behind it

There’s nothing quite like that feeling in your head after a long night of…no sleep.

Your head feels disorganized, foggy, fuzzy, jumbled.

Like it’s full of sludge left over from the night before. That’s maybe because it is.

My colleagues and I have made some recent discoveries about what happens to the brain during sleep. In essence, we’ve found that the brain’s cells shrink during sleep in order to open up the space between them. That space allows cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain to wash through it, flushing out debris and waste.

When the brain is asleep, this process allows the brain’s waste material to be cleared out at 20 times the rate of an awake brain! Our findings have given the scientific community a new understanding of sleep, and provide new insight into how this process — or the impairment of it — may be linked to dementia.

Our research recently attracted the attention of producers working on a documentary about sleep, which is airing now on the National Geographic Channel. I was interviewed for the documentary, called Sleepless in America. The film takes an in-depth look at not only the science of sleep, but also the severe societal impacts of tens of millions of Americans not getting enough of it.

Slowly, we’re building a better understanding of the complex nature of sleep — how good sleep, bad sleep, aging, and brain injury could be affecting our brains in profound and long-lasting ways.

Sleepless in America first aired Sunday, Nov. 30, and is set to air again on Dec. 7.  I hope you’ll tune in!


Jeffrey Iliff
, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine and works with the Knight Cardiovascular Institute and the OHSU Brain Institute.





Learn more:

The Washington Post:
No, you’re not sleeping enough, and it’s a big problem: 15 scary facts in new NatGeo doc

National Geographic Channel: 
Sleepless in America
Encore presentation on Sunday, December 7, 2014, 9 a.m. 

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  1. This is such valuable information that I would love to share with students I teach at the college level. I will not be able to show the video, however, because it is not closed captioned. The only captioning is You Tube’s auto-captioning which often chooses words that make no sense in the context of what is actually being said.
    It’s a shame that such great information, and such a well-made video is inaccessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people. I strongly suggest that you create closed captioning for this video and for all the videos you show on this blog. You Tube has instructions on how to do this, and there is a lot of information on the web about captioning video, too.
    Thanks for considering my suggestion. As soon as this video is closed captioned, I will begin showing it to students and recommending it to other professionals in my field.

  2. Hi Eliza,
    You are right – YouTube auto-captioning is less than ideal. The full video with CC is also available right now on the National Geographic site at

    Hope that helps!

  3. I think the 8-5 work world is stacked against the older beta-worker. No matter how little sleep one has a night due to hormonal changes and night sweats, you’ve got to get up and go to work. You can talk about this lack of sleep and resulting health risks, but it doesn’t do anything about the problem unless there is a shift from a making ends meet index to a better quality of life index. See:

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I am a senior communications specialist in OHSU's Office of Strategic Communications.

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