Scientists have now discovered that the actual problem with sleep deprivation is that your brain cells switch off while you are still awake, leading to anything from forgetting your keys to vehicle crashes.
This slowing down impairs the cells' ability to communicate, leading to mental lapses that can affect both perception and memory.
"The acute effects of a lack of sleep can also cause cognitive and behavioral lapses that contribute to accident-induced injury or death", the researchers write.
The global team of scientists studied 12 people who were preparing to undergo surgery at UCLA for epilepsy.
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.
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Researchers recorded activity directly from neurons in the brains of 12 people, NPR reports. "Most of the brain was up and running, but temporal lobe neurons happened to be in slumber, and lapses subsequently followed". To identify memory recall and visual perception accurately, the researchers carefully looked at how temporal lobe neurons responded.
Lead author Yuval Nir of Tel Aviv University said that it was fascinating to note how lack of sleep "dampened brain cell activity".
Results showed that a lack of sleep caused the neurons to respond to visual stimulus at a much slower place, while transmissions were found to drag on longer than normal. Fried explained that for example if a person is driving a vehicle and another person jumps in front of it, a sleep deprived person would have a different response than one who has had adequate sleep.
In a second finding, the researchers discovered slower brain waves in the same regions of people's brains to the failing brain cells.
The researchers had the patients categorize a variety of images as fast as possible while an electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded the firing of almost 1,500 single brain cells across the group in real time. They found that sleep deprivation leads to slower and weaker bursts of electrical activity in the nerves. "Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much", he said in a statement. He believes that there should be legal and medical standards in place to identify tired drivers on the road. It found that taking getting behind the wheel while sleep-deprived could be just as unsafe as driving while intoxicated.
The team plans to explore the benefits of a good night's sleep in more detail in the future and to uncover the mechanism responsible for the neuronal glitches that generate mental lapses.
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