New Study Reveals Far-Reaching Impacts Of Sleep Deprivation

A study conducted by researchers from Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab reveals that sleep deprivation may negatively impact our cognitive abilities on a larger scale than originally theorized.

The study is one of the first to look at how a lack of sleep affects placekeeping, a term defined as “the ability to complete a series of steps without losing one’s place, despite potential interruptions,” according to the researchers. Translated into everyday life, placekeeping impacts nearly all aspects of adult life, including activities like driving a car or operating machinery, all of which can have deadly consequences.

“In our previous study, we investigated the effect of sleep deprivation on a placekeeping task called UNRAVEL which assessed the ability to follow a procedure – or a series of steps – in order,” study co-author and MSU doctoral candidate Michelle Stepan told Mattress Clarity. “We found that sleep deprivation increased errors on this task which meant that sleep-deprived participants were more likely to skip or repeat steps, particularly if they had just been interrupted.”

sleep deprivation impacts driving abilities
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Stepan told us that it was not clear in the previous study whether errors were the result of impaired placekeeping ability or the result of impaired vigilant attention, which is the ability to maintain consistent attention on a task over time that shows large deficits after sleep deprivation.

“In the current study, for the first time, we test both placekeeping and vigilant attention and show that sleep deprivation impairs both,” Stepan told us. “We additionally controlled for vigilant attention performance and found that sleep deprivation still impaired placekeeping ability. This tells us that sleep deprivation directly impairs more than just vigilant attention – it also has a direct effect on placekeeping ability.”

The Sleep Study

Study participants included 138 MSU students, whose ages ranged from 18 to 25. All students were asked to complete two cognitive tasks, one called PVT used to measure reaction time to a stimulus and one called UNRAVEL, which researchers describe as a task used to assess a participant’s “ability to maintain their place in a series of steps without omitting or repeating a step – even after sporadic interruptions.” All participants did the set of tasks in the evening and then were split into two groups, one that stayed awake all night and another that went home to sleep. Both groups were asked to complete both tasks again the following morning.

“After being interrupted there was a 15% error rate in the evening and we saw that the error rate spiked to about 30% for the sleep-deprived group the following morning,” Stepan said in a release about the study. “The rested participants’ morning scores were similar to the night before.”

Stepan told us that the most surprising finding from their study was that sleep deprivation also directly impairs placekeeping ability, over and above deficits in vigilant attention (the ability to maintain consistent attention on a task over time). “As such, deficits in vigilant attention are not the only concern when it comes to sleep deprivation,” she said. “In particular, sleep-deprived individuals showed severe impairments with being interrupted and were much more likely to perform an incorrect step after a brief interruption.”

Real-Life Implications

While the study looked at a set of tasks in a controlled setting, experts in the field of sleep health say the findings show a real concern for how we operate in the real world.

“Although these findings might initially sound dramatic, given what we know about sleep deprivation it’s not surprising that one night of sleep deprivation can have such a profound effect on cognitive functioning,” Mattress Clarity Expert Network member and certified personal trainer Caleb Backe, who is unaffiliated with the study, told us. “The study even mentions the most relevant example of this, which is the fact that driving while sleep-deprived can literally have life-threatening consequences.”

Eva Cohen, a certified sleep science coach from Kansas-Sleep who focuses on the health effects of sleep and its connection to other physiological processes, emphasized the complexity of cognitive skills. “A lot of processes at the cellular level happen while we process information or perform tasks. Since sleep is essential for energy restoring and cellular repair in our bodies, sleep deprivation may ruin the foundation of high performance and proper cognitive functioning.”

Cohen told us that the findings are “highly valuable” because they may help raise awareness about the consequences of neglecting proper sleep.

RELATED: Everything You Need To Know About Sleep Deprivation

Battling Sleep Deprivation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Poor sleep health has been linked to a host of short and long-term health issues ranging from obesity and diabetes to mood disorders and immune function.

More than one third of adult americans are sleep deprived
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Stepan told Mattress Clarity that there are several indicators to help gauge whether a person is not getting adequate sleep. She said signs of sleep deprivation include:

  • Falling asleep almost immediately after getting into bed to sleep for the night. Stepan said this is an indicator that there may be a build-up of excessive sleep debt.
  • Having trouble staying awake during a normal day or feeling the need to nap.
  • Craving high caloric food. Stephan said sleep deprivation comes with an increase in a hormone called ghrelin, which increases appetite, and a decrease in a hormone called leptin, which indicates satiety, or the feeling of being full.

To help combat sleep deprivation, Cohen recommends a few lifestyle changes, including revising a person’s daily schedule by keeping track of the activities that take up the most time and see if they impact sleep hours. If so, Cohen told us that people may want to consider cutting them down, and even discussing a more comfortable schedule with a boss if the lack of sleep is attributed to work.

Cohen also told us that sun exposure may help since sleep deprivation may be caused by disrupted circadian rhythms. “Since sunlight is the primal regulator of our internal clock, getting more of it in the morning may help you reset your rhythms throughout the day and make it easier for you to fall asleep in the evening.”

The MSU study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in November. 

Featured image: fizkes/Shutterstock 

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Katie Golde

Katie manages the day to day operations of the Mattress Clarity news site and reviews sleep products in addition to writing and editing sleep news. She hails from Austin, where she lives with her growing family. She is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has a background in health and science content. Her work can be found in print and online publications like Discover Magazine, USA Today and The Huffington Post.