Lack of Sleep Takes Toll on Brain Power
WebMD News Archive
Feb. 9, 2000 (Atlanta) -- A sleepy person's brain works harder -- and
accomplishes less. A study using real-time, state-of-the-art imaging shows that
sleep deprivation has dramatic effects on the brain and how well it
Researchers expected to find only sluggish activity in the brains of healthy
young people who took a simple word test after staying awake for 35 hours. They
found instead that while parts of the sleep-deprived brains churned with
activity during the test, another part of the brain -- the language center --
"Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain when you are trying to do
high-level [thinking] tasks," study co-author J. Christian Gillin, MD,
tells WebMD. "It may have serious consequences both on performance and on
the way your brain functions."
Gillin's team at the University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego
VA Medical Center found that the brains of some sleep-deprived study
participants tried to overcome the language-center shut-down by shifting
activity to another part of the brain. These individuals performed better on
the memory test than their sleep-deprived peers, but not as well as they did
"What this shows is that the brain is very flexible," Monte S.
Buchsbaum, MD, professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells
WebMD. "This shows that the brain can move a task from one area to the
other when you are sleep deprived, or when you get old."
Jim Horne, PhD, director of the sleep research laboratory at Loughborough
University in England, notes in a commentary accompanying the study that the
part of the brain that overworks in the sleep-deprived people normally is one
of the most active areas of the brain. It is involved in complex functions such
as updating working memory, planning, attention, sense of time, dealing with
novel situations, and verbal fluency. "Some years ago, we suspected that if
sleep offers some sort of recovery process, then the parts of the cortex that
work hardest during wakefulness may be those that suffer the deprivation
initially," he tells WebMD. "But what seems to be happening is that the
functional part of the brain appears to be working even harder during
compensation -- to no avail, because performance shows deterioration."
However, Horne says that this part of the brain gets its rest during the
earliest stages of sleep. "Not all of sleep is for recovery. A particular
part of sleep occurring in the early part of sleep is most important for
[brain] recovery, and the latter part is not so important in that regard,"
he says. "As we can eat more food than we require and drink more fluids
than we require, we may sleep more than we require. Rather than trying to
extend one's sleep ? perhaps we should take short naps instead."