How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Brain

Prof Adrian Owen lead a group of scientists at Western University, Ontario Canada through a study to determine how sleep deprivation affects your brain. Based at the Brain and Mind Institute in London, Ontario, the neuroscientist instructed a team to take a cognitive test, then stay up until 4:00 am. Afterwards, Owen conducted a second cognitive test while scanning their brains with an MRI machine.

After being deprived of sleep, the comparison between the first and second cognitive test stores were dramatic. The scores showed sharp declines, which comes to no surprise when you think of how difficult it can be to drive when you are tired. The scans displayed a stark difference in brain activity.

By detecting blood flow in the brain, the MRI scans showed that there was a significant decrease in frontal and parietal lobe activity. Because these are the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, problem-solving and decision-making, the scans offered a visual confirmation of why subjects performed poorly on the cognitive tests.

It is well known that it is dangerous to operate machinery if you have been deprived of sleep, simply because you may fall asleep while operating the equipment, and if there is an emergency, your impaired reaction time can make the situation worse.

But beyond that, there is quite a bit that is unknown about how sleep deprivation affects your day-to-day life. What we do know, and what can be explained, is how the loss of sleep affects your brain.

You will be More Stressed and Irritable

The amygdala, which is found in a deep area of the brain, controls our emotions. When a person is suffering from sleep deprivation, studies have shown that activity in this area increases as much as 60% when study participants viewed negative images. The study also showed that the overreaction to negative stimuli is also the result of a disrupted connection between the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. As a result, scientist concluded from this research that sleep loss affects the area of the brain that moderates are response in a way that heightens the sensations of stress and anger.

Additionally, a different study showed that when a person is deprived of sleep over elongated periods of time, certain genes related with depressing feelings are activated. This hyperactivity in the brain doubles a persons’ risk for becoming depressed. The sleep deprivation can be caused by an old mattress, low quality pillows, staying up late or getting up early. In either case, whatever is causing your lack of sleep could be the cause of irritable feelings – if you are experiencing them. You

You Will Have Difficulty Making Decisions

There is a reason why Las Vegas has 24 hour casinos, bright lights, dinging bells and no windows. They realize that gamblers who are tired will make risky decisions, and the longer they play, the longer they will continue to lose money. Apparently, they read the report published by Duke University researchers.

In the 2011 study, gamblers were asked to answer gambles in one of several ways. They could increase their highest possible gains, decrease was lost, or improve their winning probability. After only one night of sleep loss, gamblers made more decisions to maximize the potential gains, while making fewer choices to avoid loss.

In other words, the loss of sleep cause them to be more optimistic and willing to accept more risk. This increase of risk taking is due to the abrupt changes in brain activity that is responsible for distinguishing positive from negative outcomes. Sleep deprivation increases activity in the motor cortex, which is a sign that the brain is working ineffectively. In the same way that a dog reacts to every sound that is made, this part of the brain becomes overreactive and will soon become fatigue.

When that happens, you become increasingly impaired at making sound decisions and performing ordinary tasks. Your brain, as it increases the production of serotonin, has difficulty filtering information and compartmentalizing it. In the end, the only way to call this energetic activity down is to get a restful night of comfortable sleep, otherwise you risk developing depression and emotional fatigue.

You Will Have Trouble Remember Things

The hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, is also dramatically affected from sleep loss. This region of the brain is where memories are stored, and when sleep deprived, people experienced extreme difficulty memorizing new information. That is because the lack of sleep decreases activity in the hippocampus, which makes it difficult for memories to be stored. The storage space in this region of the brain performs in “full capacity” mode when deficient in rest.

Additionally, the disruption to the functioning of the prefrontal cortex region will keep you from being able to focus on one thing at a time. Your brain will become constantly distracted, while impairing your ability to react swiftly. So not only will you have problems recalling and storing memories, the process of attempting to recall those memories will be slow.

Sleep is just as important as food, air and water. Even though a third of our life is spent sleeping, our fast-paced culture often forces us to sacrifice our resting time. An article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience acknowledged the trending decline in sleep while calling for additional research about the consequences of chronic sleep loss on the brain. Hopefully, science can uncover the answers in order to provide insight and direction. In the meantime, the best way to combat sleep deprivation is to get more rest and sleep more comfortably. Your brain will thank you.

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