Sleepless nights may affect the brain as much as alcohol, study suggests

Sleepless nights may affect the brain as much as alcohol, study suggests

According to The Independent, Professor Itzhak Fried, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said: "We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly". The resulting cognitive lapses in turn affect how one perceives and reacts to their surroundings.

The new study gives us a detailed look at how that lack of sleep could be affecting the brain - at least in this sample of 12 people with epilepsy, doing this particular task. The patients had electrodes implanted in their brains in order to pinpoint the origin of their seizures prior to surgery.

As part of their assessment, seizures were induced by sleeplessness: participants were kept awake through the night until they experienced a seizure, so the electrical activity in the brain could be duly monitored. The electrodes recorded the firing of a total of almost 1,500 brain cells (from all of the participants combined) as the patients responded, and the scientists paid particular attention to neurons in the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.

Four of the patients stayed up all night before looking at some more images.

As the patients became sleepier, the task became harder due to a slowdown in the communication between brain cells, the researchers observed.

Lead author Dr Yuval Nir, from Tel Aviv University in Israel, said: 'We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity.

The neurons unlike regularly responded very slowly and appeared to be very weak.

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What happened was that sleeplessness impacted how effectively neurons encoded regular information, and how visual stimuli were transposed into conscious perception. A exhausted driver, for example, may not notice a pedestrian stepping in front of his vehicle. It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving'.

The team further reports that this sluggish neuronal activity was also accompanied by slower brain wave patterns in the same region of the brain.

Most alarming about the research, however, is that brainwaves seemed to slow down, meaning certain parts of the brain were attempting to sleep - not something you want to happen while driving. Fried says this suggests that certain regions of the brain were "dozing, causing mental lapses" while the rest was trying to stay awake and run as usual.

The study's findings raise questions about how society views sleep deprivation.

"Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much". And while police have standard tests to measure for booze, "no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers", notes Fried, whose study is in Nature Medicine.

Sleep deprivation is associated with long term impact in humans leading to hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, obesity, depression etc.

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