Friday, April 29, 2011

Napping Neurons Impair Performance in the Sleep-Deprived

A new study explains why sleep deprivation makes us irritable and impairs our ability to think clearly and make decisions. A team of sleep researchers in Wisconsin and Italy have discovered that parts of your brain may be nodding off while you remain awake. The study was conducted on lab rats, but the findings likely apply to humans. An EEG was used to measure the brain waves of rats as they were kept awake four hours past their usual bedtimes.

Readings show that local populations of neurons in the brain’s cortex went silent in a seemingly random pattern as the rats remained awake. The brain patterns in these select neurons resembled slow wave or non-REM sleep. The rats’ overall EEG readings as well as their behavioral appeared no different than well-rested rats.

Researchers did notice that the rats performed progressively worse at a task that involved locating a sugar pellet. If neurons in the motor cortex switched off as the rats reached for the pellet, they were about 37 percent more likely to fail the task.

The authors of the study caution that the rats were in a state that was different than microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep in a sleep-deprived but otherwise awake person.

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