Sleepless nights may affect the brain as much as alcohol, study suggests

  • Sleepless nights may affect the brain as much as alcohol, study suggests

Sleepless nights may affect the brain as much as alcohol, study suggests

I certainly did, and it's now a running gag among my friends that I won't drive unless I've had my "beauty sleep". Moreover, these findings could potentially have wide-ranging application, since the effects of sleep deprivation are already known to be linked to, among other things, lost productivity at work and life-threatening incidents on the nation's highways. This in turn leads to temporary mental lapses that can affect memory and visual perception, researchers say.

Neurology professor Dr Itzhak Fried, from the University of California, Los Angeles, who was involved in the study, said: 'We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly.

Fried and his colleagues studied 12 patients preparing to have surgery for epilepsy, which meant their brains had already been fitted with electrodes to try and detect the locations of seizures before their operations.

The study claims that sleep deprivation is something that you can't catch up on, so for example, if you only get 4 hours one night, 12 hours the next night won't make up for the previous lack of 4 hours sleep.

They were then tasked with categorising a selection of images as fast as possible while implants recorded their brain activity.

In over 30 image experiments, the research team recorded the electrical activity of almost 1,500 neurons, 150 of which clearly responded to the images.

The scientists zeroed in on the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory. But more interestingly, as they slowed down, their brain cells did so too.

In short, a lack of sleep interfered with the neurons' ability to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought. Neurons fired more weakly, Fried said, and communications lagged. Fried explained that for example if a person is driving a vehicle and another person jumps in front of it, a sleep deprived person would have a different response than one who has had adequate sleep.

The team also discovered "slow" brain waves similar to those that occur during sleep in exhausted regions of the brain.

Therefore, sleep deprivation affected the brain as well, but only gradually, and several tasks took longer to fulfill.

The researchers also discovered that slower brain waves accompanied sluggish cellular activity in the temporal lobe and other parts of the brain. In total, the activity of nearly 1,500 brain cells was recorded across the 12 participants.

"Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much", Fried said.

And while police have standard tests to measure for booze, "no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers", notes Fried, whose study is in Nature Medicine.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, there is some evidence that taking a quick nap will take the edge off of sleep deprivation.