The Little Known Brain Cells that Help You Stay Awake and Keep Your Brain Active

Andy Hab
2 min readAug 25

Now that sounds good — stay awake and keep my brain active!

Yes, indeed that does sound good. We all know, and obviously the scientific research also says, that fatigue impairs brain function — quite seriously at times.

Tell me about it! And what brain cells are we talking about?

First off, we know that staying a wake for longer causes mental fatigue and subsequently disrupts following sleep patterns. And we also know that there are different parts of the brain that control this daily cycle of sleep and alertness.

These researchers from Washington State University in the USA looked at part of the brain in mice called the basal forebrain which is associated with sleep regulation. Specifically they look at a class of brains cells called astrocytes.

Astrocytes? Sounds cool but what are they?

Astrocytes are what are known as glial cells or helping cells — normally only ascribed a helping function in the brain to the brain’s neurons which are our key functional brain cells. But because astrocytes have a key regulatory function shuttling nutrients and transmitters into neurons, they can have important impacts on brain functioning.

And it is these cells that contribute to staying awake with good cognitive function?

Precisely the researchers zoomed in on these astrocytes in the basal forebrain. When they activated these the mice stayed awake much longer without any impairment in function and without disrupting following sleep patterns.

So staying awake for longer with higher cognitive functions — sounds good to me!

Sounds appealing for sure, and that this seems to be controlled by these unsuspecting astrocytes is very a useful, if not a surprising, insight.

But there are other factors at play and over time — such as hormonal balances not to mention genetic damage from staying awake and subsequent repair during sleep. I’ve written about sleep multiple times (one review here) and it’s impact on brain function.

Hmmm, so more research needed?

Of course but still a very useful avenue for research!

And will there be drugs for staying awake for shift workers then?

Who knows — maybe in the future. But for now the best advice is still to regularly get a good night’s sleep!


Ashley M. Ingiosi, Christopher R. Hayworth, Marcos G. Frank.
Activation of Basal Forebrain Astrocytes Induces Wakefulness without Compensatory Changes in Sleep Drive.
The Journal of Neuroscience, 2023; 43 (32): 5792
DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0163–23.2023

Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!