Giving kids psychiatric medications — like antidepressants or stimulants for ADHD — that are known to disrupt sleep may have big consequences for the developing brain.

Such drugs can offer help to some children, but they should not be used casually to treat behavior problems. Their risks are just becoming clear.

Researchers don’t understand all of sleep’s benefits for the brain precisely, but they’re starting to understand more. We do know that sleep strengthens brain connections and solidifies memories. If sleep — and REM sleep, in particular — are disrupted, the brain can’t make the connections it needs.

Experience is fragile. These traces tend to vanish without REM sleep and the brain basically forgets what it saw.

Research has found this to be true for rodents, and the concern is that these meds might have the same effects on developing brains in humans. Now a study has found similar evidence for the danger to brain development in kittens with disrupted sleep.

“REM sleep acts like the chemical developer in old-fashioned photography to make traces of experience more permanent and focused in the brain,” said study author Marcos Frank. “Experience is fragile. These traces tend to vanish without REM sleep and the brain basically forgets what it saw.”

His team covered one of the kittens' eyes with an eye patch for six hours. This is known to prompt the open eye to be come dominant. They then let the kittens sleep — one group they woke up during REM and another group they woke up during non-REM sleep.

What they found was that the kittens who were not allowed REM sleep didn’t develop a dominant eye, suggesting that their brains were not able to do the work they’d normally do.

This may well pertain to people, too, given what we know about the visual system. Anything that disrupts REM sleep in kids might have significant effects on the developing brain. “There is a lot of data accumulating that says the amount of sleep a child gets impacts his/her ability to do well in school,” Frank said. “This study helps explain why this might be — and why we should be cautious about restricting sleep in our children.

“It is becoming more common for pediatricians to give compounds that affect brain activity earlier in life — not just Ritalin for attention deficit disorder, but also antidepressants and other drugs,” and psychiatric meds are known to disrupt REM sleep.

Though in some cases medication may be unavoidable, the research suggests more caution be used before prescribing them.

“The fact is, we have very little pre-clinical research data to tell us what these drugs are doing to developing brains in both the short- and long-term,” said Frank. “Almost all of these compounds can potentially suppress sleep and REM sleep in particular. REM sleep is very fragile — it can be inhibited by drugs very easily.”

The study was carried out by a team at Washington State University Spokane and published in Science Advances.