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The link between sleep and cardiovascular disease is poorly understood. Findings in mice now show that disrupted sleep causes the brain to signal the bone marrow to boost white blood cell production, damaging blood vessels.

Most people have at some point echoed Macbeth’s complaint about the loss of “sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care”. Sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnoea (when breathing temporarily stops, causing both sleep disruption and lack of oxygen in blood) and sleep deprivation, have been associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and its harmful cardiovascular effects1,2. Atherosclerosis is characterized by the formation of ‘plaques’ in arteries, as white blood cells enter the artery wall, take up cholesterol and other substances from the blood and trigger an inflammatory response. However, the mechanisms linking sleep disruption and atherosclerosis have been largely unknown. Writing in Nature, McAlpine et al.3 show that persistent sleep disruption causes the brain to signal the bone marrow to increase the production of white blood cells.

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