How your brain and personality are affected by lack of sleep

-by Daniel Barker

Everyone knows that lack of sleep can make a person irritable and unable to function properly, but what's really going on inside the brain when we stay awake too long?

A recent article in IFL Science explored the subject, taking a look at some modern research and relating the once-famous story of Peter Tripp, a 1950s-era radio DJ who once deliberately stayed awake for 200 hours as part of a publicity stunt for charity.

When Tripp set out to accomplish his goal, no one quite knew what would happen. Both the public and the scientific community were interested in the results, since in 1959 very little research into sleep deprivation had been conducted:

"The subsequent impact of the 'wakeathon' on Tripp's mind was far more dramatic than anyone had expected. The personality of a man normally described as cheerful and upbeat appeared to significantly change as time went by. By the third day he had become highly irritable, cursing and insulting even his closest friends. Towards the end of his endeavour, he began to hallucinate and exhibit paranoid behaviours."

With the help of stimulants, Tripp did manage to stay awake for 201 hours. His marriage and career collapsed soon after, however, although it's unclear whether the stunt had anything to do with it. His record was broken in 1964.

Sleep deprivation effects on the brain

More recent research has revealed how various activities and mechanisms in different areas of the human brain are affected by sleep deprivation.

One study used brain imaging techniques to view 
changes in brain activity caused by sleep deprivation. The researchers found that the amygdala, the brain's "emotional control center," became more active in sleep-deprived subjects, and the connection between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex was disturbed:

"This was a critical insight as the the medial prefrontal cortex itself regulates amygdala function. Sleep deprivation appears to cause the amygdala to overreact to negative stimuli because it becomes disconnected from brain areas that normally moderate its response."

Sleep deprivation also affects other parts of the brain. A different study found that when affected by lack of 
sleep, the hippocampus was unable to store new memories as effectively as when rested.

Lack of sleep can also cause people to engage in risky behavior. A 2011 Duke University study conducted an experiment involving sleep-deprived participants who were asked to make a series of gambling decisions.

The researchers found that "
sleep deprivation made their gambles riskier and more optimistic" – even after just one night without sleep – and the behavior was "accompanied by changes in activity in brain areas that evaluate negative and positive outcomes."

Sleep deprivation effects on physical health

An occasional night of little or no sleep isn't such a big deal, but if you aren't getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you may begin to experience serious health problems.

Many of us find it difficult enough to get a good night's rest on a consistent basis simply because of overflowing schedules. But staring at a computer or smartphone before going to bed can make matters even worse. The blue light emitted from these screens suppresses melatonin production in the 
brain, making it harder to get to sleep.

And sleep deprivation doesn't just affect moods and decision-making ability. Lack of sleep can cause or contribute to a number of negative health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, 
weight gain and diabetes.

According to The Telegraph, six in 10 Brits are now sleep-deprived because of smartphones and computers. In the United States, the CDC reports that more than one-third of Americans don't get enough sleep on a regular basis.

Maybe that explains why so many people wandering the streets these days look just like zombies. ...


Sources:

IFLScience.com

Telegraph.co.uk

CDC.gov


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