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The Many Benefits Of Sleep And The Teenage Brain

Researchers now know more than ever about the importance of sleep on the developing brain. Your Teen caught up with Dr. Frances E. Jensen is author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults to find out all the details on sleep and brain development.

Q: Why is getting enough sleep so important for teens? 

Jensen: Sleep is really important for learning and we know sleep deprivation blocks the process of synaptic plasticity.

Q: What’s synaptic plasticity?

Jensen: When you learn, you are using the same pathway over and over again in your brain. This process triggers the building of a synapse. That’s called synaptic plasticity.

Q: What else happens during sleep?

Jensen: You also consolidate your memories. So, it’s good to brush up on the things you found hardest to memorize right before you go to sleep. You will consolidate that and, hopefully, when you wake up to take the test in the morning, those memories will be well set.

Q: It seems impossible for teens to get enough sleep.

Jensen: Yes. Let’s think about what society does to teenagers. As you enter puberty, the circadian clock sets itself later and later. And melatonin, which is the stimulus that starts to put your brain to sleep, gets released around 8 or 9 p.m. for adults, but for teenagers, it’s closer to 11 p.m. or midnight. So many teenagers are not entering good sleep until after midnight and then we wake them up at 6 a.m. to get on the bus. We send them with pencils sharpened at 7 a.m. for the SAT, but it’s not really what’s best for their brains.

Q: So what’s the message?

Jensen: The point to really drive home with teenagers is to talk to them about the effects of things like stress, sleep deprivation, and drugs and alcohol on the process of learning. They block the pathways of building those synapses. Right now, your teenager is a learning machine. Society fortunately puts teenagers in a place where their job is to learn. It’s a learning time and so it can be so counter productive to damage this amazing machine.

Q: How resilient are teenage brains to adverse effects?

Jensen: Your teenager’s brain is never going to be as good as it is right now—and it is so counter productive to damage this amazing machine. Is there resilience? Yes, but it’s not a complete catch up. At 25 or 26, what they’ve got is what they’ve got to go with for the rest of their life.

Frances E. Jensen, MD

Frances E. Jensen is Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Find out more about her new book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

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