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Dr Kwangwook Cho, author of report
"It looks like there is a high chance [that jetlag damages the brain]"
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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 08:10 GMT 09:10 UK
Jetlag 'shrinks the brain'
The brains of aircrew were compared
Frequent flyers who repeatedly suffer jetlag could be permanently affecting their brain power, claim researchers.

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, examined the brains of aircrew, but suggests that any worker who swaps from night to day shifts over a short period may be at risk.

Jet lag happens when a traveller passes over a number of time zones and disrupts the normal "circadian" rhythms which help humans wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night.

We think of jet lag as a kind of nuisance, but this study would suggest that it may have more serious consequences

Dr Robert Sack, Oregon Health Sciences University
Sufferers feel exhausted, disorientated and often cannot sleep.

Dr Kwangwook Cho of the University of Bristol conducted a small study of 20 women, aged between 22 and 28, who had worked for at least five years for an airline, and regularly flew across at least seven time zones.

Half of the women, however, had on average least a fortnight to recover from their jetlag - the rest had only a week.

Women were chosen for the test because, in general, they suffer far worse jetlag than their male counterparts.

Memory tests

Dr Cho not only scanned their brains to look at their physical characteristics, but also measured their performance in memory and understanding tests.

He found that the aircrew given the shorter period to "turn around" after a jet-lagging flight had an area of the brain called the temporal lobe which was noticeably smaller than the others.

Dr Cho said: "I found there was no deficit of language, but certain short-term objective memory and very simple abstract cognition was quite bad."

It is not known whether the temporal lobe will "recover" given time away from such sleep-disrupting working patterns.

Brendan Gold, from the Transport and General Workers Union, told the BBC: "We're going to have to look at some more research - perhaps even commission some ourselves, to look at the long term effects on crew, including those who have retired from the occupation."

Dr Robert Sack, of the Sleep Disorders Medicine Clinic at the Oregan Health Sciences University in Portland, said: "It's interesting because we think of jet lag as a kind of nuisance, but this study would suggest that it may have more serious consequences."

The study, although small, could have implications for a variety of workers whose hours switch backwards and forwards from day to night, such as police officers and doctors.

Previous studies have suggested a link between working night-shifts and both heart disease and breast cancer.

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19 Sep 00 | Health
Lack of sleep 'risks lives'
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