Many children and young people sleep less than recommended. A new research collaboration between the University of Copenhagen and Rigshospitalet will study the effect of extra sleep on weight, metabolism and learning among 6- to 9-year-old children. The Novo Nordisk Foundation is supporting the project with a grant of almost DKK 25 million.
Research has shown that inadequate sleep increases the risk of obesity among both children and adults, and that losing just a few hours of sleep can negatively affect cognitive functions such as attention and memory – and thus potentially the ability to learn and perform in school.
Can extra sleep improve body weight and learning ability among children with overweight?
In a newly established collaboration, the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at the University of Copenhagen, the Danish Center for Sleep Medicine at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen and several other partners in Denmark and abroad have launched MORE2SLEEP, a study that explores how extra sleep affects the ability of children with overweight to regulate body weight and learning ability. The head of MORE2SLEEP, Faidon Magkos, Professor at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports of the University of Copenhagen, explains:
“A significant body of evidence links too little sleep with overweight and obesity. This is particularly true among children and young people. In this age group, short sleep has also been associated with worse academic performance in school. However, we know little about the mechanisms behind these associations. More importantly, we lack knowledge about what can be done to reverse these negative effects.” He continues:
“Limited available evidence from experimental studies of adults suggests that extra sleep improves eating behaviour and body weight homeostasis. We will test this hypothesis among children. With the team of researchers we have gathered and with the research project we have designed, MORE2SLEEP has the potential to become a milestone for understanding the mechanisms between sleep duration, body weight, metabolism and learning.”
The basis for treatment strategies and sleep recommendations
According to Arne Astrup, Professor, MD, DMSc and Senior Vice President for Obesity and Nutritional Science at the Novo Nordisk Foundation, MORE2SLEEP can become a reference point for future studies on sleep in relationship to obesity, neurophysiology and cognitive function among children:
“With the grant for MORE2SLEEP, the Novo Nordisk Foundation wants to give the researchers the opportunity to produce novel knowledge about the role of sleep in body weight and mental performance. The ambition is that knowledge from the project can lead to new and better sleep recommendations for parents, health policy-makers and others responsible for the health of young children. In this way, the project could positively affect how children sleep, what they eat, their weight and their learning abilities. These beneficial effects can follow them for the rest of their lives.”
Why is sleep so important?
Poul Jørgen Jennum, Chief Physician, Professor and head of the Danish Center for Sleep Medicine at Rigshospitalet, is also part of the study. He explains that the quality of the few existing studies is limited due to few participants and short intervention periods, thereby preventing robust conclusions from being drawn. In MORE2SLEEP, the children will sleep an additional 45–60 minutes every night for 12 weeks – with follow-up for 6 months – which will enable the researchers to monitor the effects over an extended period of time and thereby obtain much more knowledge than previously possible.
“In fact, we do not know what happens when you increase the amount of sleep among children who are overweight and sleep too little. That is why we will now be following 300 children aged 6–9 years. This can provide crucial new knowledge on how sleep affects children’s regulation of metabolism, the balance between hunger and appetite, memory functions and much more. With our study, we will increase our knowledge of what children’s sleep means for their development and then be able to give health advice to parents and decision-makers,” says Poul Jørgen Jennum.
Sleep is important for learning ability
Jesper Lundbye-Jensen, Associate Professor at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports of the University of Copenhagen, is in charge of the part of the study related to cognitive function, memory and learning. He explains that there are well-documented correlations between sleep, cognitive function and learning:
“We know that sleep is of great importance for cognitive function and for memory, and if we lose sleep, this can negatively affect learning ability. One reason is because an important function of sleep is the consolidation of memory. But we do not know whether increasing sleep duration among children who sleep too little provides significant benefits. This is why this project is so important – because we are investigating the effects on cognitive function and learning but also the underlying changes in the brain.”
The project MORE2SLEEP – a Randomised Controlled Trial of Sleep Extension to Reduce Overweight and Improve Learning among Prepubescent Children will run from 1 January 2023 to 31 December 2026 and is supported by a grant of DKK 24,854,806 from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.