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Poor Sleep Tires Out Your Brain Cells, Making You Slow & Forgetful

S u m m a r y :
Poor sleep tires out your brain cells, resulting in you becoming temporarily forgetful and inattentive, says a new paper published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Tired Brain Cells Make You Forget

Why do we behave weirdly when we are sleep-deprived? Ever wondered why you become inattentive and forgetful when you’ve had poor sleep the night before? Blame your tired brain cells! Lack of sleep tires out your brain cells, leading to a disruption in the communication between them, according to the new research conducted by a team of investigators from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Sciences. This paper is the first one to show how sleep deprivation negatively affects the ability of brain neurones to interact with each other, thereby causing temporary mental lapses involving the memory and visual perception.

“We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly,” says senior author Itzhak Fried from UCLA. “This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.”

‘Tired’ brain cells react more slowly, and fire more weakly. Photo credits: UCLA.

Triggering Epileptic Seizure To Study the Brain

Fried and his colleagues examined a group of 12 epileptic patients who went through electrode implantation into their brain as a procedure to identify the origin of their seizures before surgery. These patients are triggered to have epileptic seizures so that the intervention can be done as soon as possible, and so they stay awake all night because sleep deprivation is known to lead to seizures. The researchers requested them to categorise a number of images as fast as they could while their electrodes showed the firing of their brain cells in real time; the team focused specifically on the temporal lobe, a brain region involved in visual perception and memory.

The Drowsier You Are, The Slower Is Your Brain

According to the observations, the patients had more difficulty with the task when they got drowsier—they slowed down, and so did their brain cells. Lead author Yuval Nir mentions their surprise at how lack of sleep can slow down brain cell activity. He explains that neurones are slower to respond, and they fire more weakly, leading to slower transmissions—a great contrast from the normal rapid reactions.

Sleepy Drivers Are Like Drunk Drivers

The authors explain that sleep deprivation disrupts the ability of neurones to encode information, and interpret visual perception into conscious thought. This might explain the phenomenon behind a sleep-deprived driver seeing a pedestrian in front of his vehicle, a reaction similar to drunk drivers.

“The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s over-tired brain,” explains Yuval Nir. “It takes longer for his brain to register what he’s perceiving.”

“Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much,” says Fried. “Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers.”

A Brain Partly Awake, Partly Sleeping

Another interesting finding is that slower brain waves are associated with slower cellular activity in the same regions of the brains of the patients.

“Slow sleep-like waves disrupted the patients’ brain activity and performance of tasks,” says Fried. “This phenomenon suggests that select regions of the patients’ brains were dozing, causing mental lapses, while the rest of the brain was awake and running as usual.”

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