Chronic Lack of Sleep May Increase Risky Behavior

A new Swiss study finds that chronic lack of sleep may lead to increased risk-seeking in young adults. This behavior may be due to the effects that sleep deprivation has on the right prefrontal cortex.

Scientists at the University of Zurich and the University Hospital Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland studied the risk behavior of 14 healthy male students aged 18 to 28 years. They found that if the students slept only 5 hours a night for a week, they displayed clearly riskier behavior in comparison with a normal sleep duration of about 8 hours.

For example,  twice a day the participants had to choose between receiving a smaller amount of money or taking a risk on a larger sum that may or may not be paid out. The riskier the decision, the higher the possible prize, but also the risk of getting nothing.

While a single sleepless night had no effect on risk-seeking, 11 of the 14 participants engaged in significantly riskier behavior the longer they went with less sleep. One finding that was particularly concerning was how the participants assessed their risk-taking behavior as the same whether they got enough sleep or not.

“We therefore do not notice ourselves that we are acting riskier when suffering from a lack of sleep,” said Dr. Christian Baumann, professor of neurology and the head of the Clinical Research Priority Programs (CRPP).

The authors of the study assert that we should therefore all strive for a sufficient sleep duration — especially political and economic leaders who make wide-reaching decisions daily.

“The good news is that in the high-powered world of managers, getting enough sleep is increasingly being seen as desirable,” said Baumann.

Also, for the first time, the researchers revealed that a lack of sleep affects the right prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain previously shown to be associated with risk-taking behavior.

“We assume that behavioral changes occur for anatomical-functional reasons to some extent, as a result of the right prefrontal cortex not being able to recover properly due to a chronic lack of sleep,” said Baumann.

Many people in Western countries get less than the recommended hours of sleep (about 9 hours per night for young adults and 7.5 hours for adults). Research has shown that if a young adult sleeps less than 8 hours a night, increased attention deficits occur, which can lead to considerable negative consequences.

Source: University of Zurich