After a night of insufficient sleep, you might find yourself saying “I literally cannot function today” — and it turns out you’re actually not that far off base. A new study has shed some unflattering light on sleep deprivation’s effect on the human brain — and it reveals that when we get a poor night’s sleep, our brain’s functioning is more impaired than we previously thought.
The study, which assessed the brain activity of 12 epilepsy patients, cleared up a lot of the confusion we have about why getting a good night’s sleep matters so much for carrying out menial tasks. The epilepsy patients were required to stay up all night in order to prepare for surgery the following morning — and the electrodes monitoring their seizures actually ended up picking up something else.
Patients were tasked with sorting random images to keep their brains busy while they were fighting to stay awake. The more tired they became, the more difficult it was to sort the images. Simple tasks grew nearly impossible — and the answers as to why were uncovered in recorded brain activity.
Their brain cells literally slowed down as the night bore on, firing more weakly and becoming less efficient at doing really anything.
“Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual,” Yuval Nir, co-author of the study, told UCLA Newsroom.
Dr. Itzhak Fried, also involved in the study, explained that the disruptions in brain activity occurred in waves, sweeping across the brain as tiredness hit. “This phenomenon suggests that select regions of the patients’ brains were dozing, causing mental lapses, while the rest of the brain was awake and running as usual,” he said.
Fried also implied that sleep deprivation should be taken into account when operating a vehicle, similar to alcohol impairment. “Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much,” Fried said. “Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers.”
Driving while sleep-deprived could be putting those around you in just as much danger as getting behind the wheel after having a few beers. If that’s not enough to scare you into getting your eight hours, here are 15 other horrifying things that happen to your body when you’re sleep-deprived.