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New Thoughts on Sleep Deprivation

A new study of sleep deprivation has opened researchers’ eyes to ways sleep deprivation affects important areas of brain functioning.

Washington State University researchers studied how sleep deprivation would affect executive functioning—the ability to initiate, monitor and stop actions to achieve objectives. They discovered sleep deprivation affects distinct cognitive processes in different ways.

In the investigation, researchers found that working memory—a key element of executive functioning—was essentially unaffected by as much as 51 hours of total sleep deprivation.

Instead, they saw a degradation of non-executive components of cognition, such as information intake, that accounted for the overall impairment in subjects’ performance on cognitive tasks.

In other words, the sleep-deprived brain appears to be capable of processing information, but this information may be distorted before it can be processed.

These results challenge an existing theory that states that sleep deprivation affects executive functions more than non-executive cognitive processes.

They also show that previous experimental support for this theory was hampered by task impurity, the problem that any cognitive performance task involves a number of intertwined cognitive processes that must be distinguished to really understand the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance.

Findings are published in the journal SLEEP.

“These findings are significant for our understanding of how sleep deprivation affects the brain,” said Hans Van Dongen, principal investigator on the study and a research professor in the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center.

“They show that a large body of research on the effects of sleep deprivation needs to be revisited to verify the conclusions, which may have been drawn incorrectly because of task impurity issues.”

The study looked at 23 subjects, who spent 6.5 consecutive days in a controlled laboratory environment. One group was kept awake for two consecutive nights (62 hours), while the other was on a normal sleep schedule.

Three times throughout the experiment, the subjects completed an executive functions task battery composed of tasks that were selected because they allowed for important executive functions to be examined separately from non-executive components of cognition.

The task battery measured such executive functions as working memory scanning efficiency, resistance to proactive interference and verbal fluency.

Van Dongen and his colleagues first came up with their new perspective following earlier research studies that examined individual differences in the effects of sleep deprivation, which showed that these differences depended on the task being performed.

“This suggested that sleep deprivation can affect multiple aspects of cognitive task performance in different ways, and that we should look at separate components of cognition and not just overall task performance,” Van Dongen said.

Their recent study was the first step in a new line of research the researchers are pursuing, in which they will investigate the effects of sleep deprivation on a variety of distinct cognitive processes.

They are planning followup studies that will examine how distinct components of decisionmaking are affected by sleep deprivation and how this influences the overall decisions people make. Ultimately, this may lead to the development of interventions that target the components of cognition most affected by sleep deprivation.

Such interventions could improve decisionmaking in situations where getting more sleep is not an option. This work will have important implications for emergency responders, police officers, military personnel and anyone required to make sound decisions in safety-critical environments with little opportunity for sleep.

Source: Washington State University

New Thoughts on Sleep Deprivation

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). New Thoughts on Sleep Deprivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Feb 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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