Total Sleep Deprivation and the Brain

by Florence Cardinal Patient Expert

Long periods of sleep deprivation are often a way of life for members of essential services, including medical and military personnel. Sleep deprivation can lead to poor decisions, indecisiveness, accidents and even death.

For almost four years, Dr. Sean Drummond, researcher with the Department of Defense, has conducted a study into the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and the recovery process.

The purpose of the study was to determine the impact of 64 hours of total sleep deprivation on brain function, the course of brain recovery once normal sleep resumed and the effects of the deprivation during different periods of the day.

40 subjects participated and spent six days in the lab, two days of normal sleep, two days of total sleep deprivation and two days of recovery time. Researchers discovered that, as the hours of deprivation increased, other areas of the brain not usually accessed, responded in an effort to compensate for the lack of sleep. However, as the time without sleep continues beyond 30 hours, these regions also began to fail and the brain became impaired and unable to function properly. Decision-making became difficulty and faulty and risk factors increased.

The conclusion was that there is a limit to the brain's ability to compensate for total sleep deprivation. As time increases, individuals can keep fewer pieces of information active and multi-tasking and solving complex problems becomes difficult. Attention becomes impaired as does working memory.

Another discovery made during the study was that catching up on sleep or getting back to normal takes longer than the original periods of total sleep deprivation. For instance, after two days of total sleep deprivation, many of the test subjects were still not functioning normally after two days of normal sleep.

This study only emphasizes the importance of getting adequate sleep and the dangers inherent in sleep deprivation. This is true in essential services - medical, military, emergency - but it's also true for all of us if we wish to function normally.

Florence Cardinal
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Florence Cardinal

Florence wrote for HealthCentral as patient expert for Sleep Disorders.