What happens to your brain when you are sleep-deprived?

  • Published7 May 2015
  • Reviewed7 May 2015
  • Author Hengyi Rao
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Although scientists continue to debate the purposes and benefits of sleep, one thing is clear: sleep deprivation is really bad for brain function.

The first known study about the negative effects of sleeplessness was published in 1896. Since then, hundreds of studies have established that sleep loss impairs various cognitive functions and behavior, including arousal, attention, cognitive speed, memory, emotional intelligence, and decision making. These symptoms can start after 16 hours without sleep, and they get worse as time goes on.

Sleep deprivation can impair several brain networks that control cognitive abilities and behavior, and research using brain imaging technology, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), suggests how. When comparing the brain of someone who is sleep-deprived to the brain of someone who has slept normally, scientists have found reduced metabolism and blood flow in multiple brain regions Reductions in blood flow and metabolism are linked to impaired cognitive function and behavior. These and other findings over the have contributed greatly to our understanding of the effects of sleep on brain function. 

In my lab, we combine fMRI with behavioral, physiological, and genetic tests to study how sleep deprivation affects behavior, and how the effects of sleep deprivation vary from person to person. We are also examining how additional sleep or light treatment after sleep loss can reverse the negative consequences of a sleepless night. Ultimately, we hope to obtain safe and effective treatments that can minimize the harmful effects of sleep loss.

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