Study: Science underestimated the dangers of sleep deprivation

EAST LANSING, Mich. — It can be tempting to try and cut back on sleep. After all, think of all the extra tasks we could all accomplish if we weren’t snoozing all night! Of course, sleep isn’t something one can choose to just stop doing, it’s not exercise or meditation. Sleep is an absolute necessity for our bodies, and without it we would all break down physically and mentally.

The Sleep and Learning Lab at Michigan State University is really driving home this fact with their latest study. According to their findings, sleep deprivation is even more detrimental to our bodies and ability to complete tasks than previously thought.

This is among one of the largest studies ever on sleep deprivation, and one of the first to research how it impacts what researchers call “placekeeping,” the ability to complete a task without losing one’s place, in spite of potential interruptions.

“Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling,” co-author and MSU doctoral candidate Michelle Stepan says in a media release. “Sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do, and simply can’t trust that they won’t make costly errors. Oftentimes – like when behind the wheel of a car – these errors can have tragic consequences.”

“Our findings debunk a common theory that suggests that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation,” Stepan explains. “Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals. But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

A total of 138 people were recruited to take part in an overnight sleep assessment; 77 stayed awake all night and 61 slept at home normally. Before going to sleep, each participant completed two cognitive tasks in the evening. One task measured reaction time, while the other measured the ability to stay focused on a task, even in the face of interruptions. Then, each person completed the same two tasks the following morning after either sleeping normally or staying up all night.

Overall, the researchers found that participants from both groups had a 15% error rate in the evening tasks, but that rate nearly doubled (up to 30%) among the sleep-deprived cohort in the morning. The rested participants scored about the same in the morning as they did the night before.

While the study’s authors admit that many people can complete tasks on “auto-pilot” even while sleep-deprived, lack of adequate sleep still causes deficits in all facets of everyday life, and those negative effects may be more profound than previously thought.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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Ben Renner

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