If you’re struggling to stay alert after a sleepless night, blame your brain cells. According to a new study published in the journal Nature Medicine, missing out on sleep doesn’t just leave you sluggish, it can actually slow down the neurons in your brain, making everyday tasks — from commuting to work to responding to email — more challenging.
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“We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity,” said lead study author Yuval Nir, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University, in a press release. “Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”
But perhaps the greatest risk of sleep deprivation had to do with your brain’s ability to process and respond to visual information. Think of the pedestrian who steps in front of your car while you’re driving. “The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s overtired brain,” said senior study author Itzhak Fried, M.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles. “It takes longer for his brain to register what he’s perceiving.”
The study included 12 patients preparing for an epilepsy-related surgery at UCLA. Prior to surgery, the individuals had electrodes implanted in their brains to pinpoint the location of their seizures. (Sleep-deprivation can trigger seizures, so patients were kept awake in the hopes of reducing the amount of time they would need to be in the hospital.) The electrodes recorded the firing of brain cells as patients attempted to complete various cognitive tasks.
In addition to neurons firing more slowly, the researchers also observed slower, “dream-like” brain waves interrupting normal, waking brain processes in the sleep-deprived. “This phenomenon suggests that select regions of the patients’ brains were dozing, causing mental lapses, while the rest of the brain was awake and running as usual,” said Fried.
In the end, the researchers say the results have serious implications for how we think about a lack of sleep.
“Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much,” Fried said. “Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers.”
If you’re worried you may not be getting enough sleep, here is how much you should be aiming for.
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