Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine studied certain brain cells that are involved in keeping the brain alert.
The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, examined lab mice that were kept awake to mimic chronic sleep deprivation that results from late night studying, working through night shifts, long hours in the office, or other life occurrences that cause sleep deprivation.
Following several days of sleep patterns similar to the routines of shift workers, the mice lost 25% of the brain cells in part of the brain stem.
Researchers say this is the first evidence that sleep loss can lead to a loss of brain cells, and more research is being conducted to see if the results are permanent.
If the same goes for humans, scientists think it may one day be possible to develop a drug to protect the brain from the side-effects of lost sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults age 18 and up get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.