Sleep deprivation shown to have repercussions big and small, study finds

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Researchers found not getting enough sleep affects our brains in more ways than we realize

Not getting enough sleep is an all too common feeling, and while many tend to focus on feeling sluggish or needing an extra jolt of caffeine to make it through the day, lack of sleep could be having a much more important effect on consumers nationwide.

Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology and director of the MSU Sleep and Learning Lab, recently led a team of researchers from Michigan State University in the largest controlled study on sleep deprivation.

Fenn and her team’s experiment was unique in that it focused specifically on the ways sleep deprivation impedes people’s efforts in completing tasks, and their overall memory function throughout the day.

“If you look at accidents and mistakes in surgery, public transportation, and even operating nuclear power plants, lack of sleep is one of the primary reasons for human error,” Fenn said. “There are many people in critical professions who are sleep-deprived. Research has found that nearly one-quarter of the people with procedure-heavy jobs have fallen asleep on the job.”

Maintaining memory and completing tasks

Fenn and her team were primarily concerned with the ways sleep deprivation affected the participants’ memory and their ability to complete tasks.

Utilizing 234 participants, half of the group was allowed to sleep after midnight, while the other half was required to stay awake all night in the lab. Both groups got to the lab at 10 p.m. and were instructed to begin a task that forced them to follow steps in a particular order. Sporadically during their work, the groups would be briefly disrupted and then instructed to return to their work, forcing them to remember where they had left off.

In the morning, both groups were back in the lab and repeated the same protocol.

According to the results, the group that was able to sleep after midnight performed much better on the task by morning. At night, both groups met the criteria of the task -- no participants failed. However, by morning, just one percent of the group that slept failed to meet the criteria of the task, while 15 percent of the group that was awake all night failed.

“Sleep-deprived participants not only showed more errors than those who slept, but also showed a progressive increase in errors associated with memory as they performed the task -- an effect not observed by those who slept,” Fenn said. “This shows that the sleep-deprived group experienced a great deal of difficulty remembering where they were in the sequence during interruptions.”

Because of this, Fenn points fingers at memory maintenance, as well as regular, day-to-day interruptions -- like text messages -- to be major factors at play for those who are sleep deprived. She found that it’s much harder to resume tasks -- without error -- once interrupted.

Effects in real time

Though Fenn notes that the effects of sleep deprivation are wide-reaching, some have greater repercussions than others.

“Every day, approximately 11 sponges are left inside patients who have undergone surgery,” Fenn said. “That’s 4,000 potentially dire missteps each year and an example of a procedural task gone terribly wrong that can result from sleep deprivation.”

“Our research suggests that sleep-deprived people shouldn’t perform tasks in which they are interrupted -- or, only perform them for short periods.”

Fenn also uses the example of students who pull all-nighters before exams, but more than likely can’t remember the material they spent all night memorizing. Additionally, she references train and car accidents, as well as the Challenger Explosion, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill as other incidents that can all be traced back to sleep deprivation in some way.

To read the full study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, click here.

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