New study reveals sleep deprivation disrupts brain-cell communication

Brain cells fire more slowly and stop encoding memories efficiently UCLA found

According to The Independent, Professor Itzhak Fried, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said: "We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly".

The study participants had to stay awake all night to speed up the onset of an epileptic episode. "This leads to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us".

The scientists recorded the neuron activity in the medial temporal lobe of the brain while 12 people completed a facial recognition test, both before and after a full night without sleep.

Because epileptic patients are often kept awake a lot to provoke a seizure, the scientists had an excellent way to study the effects of sleep deprivation. Patients then had to identify images as fast as possible while the implants recorded brain activity.

The researchers also noted that as the patients got sleepier, they also had more difficulty completing the task at hand. Each image caused cells in areas of the brain involved in perception to produce distinctive patterns of electrical activity.

Too little shuteye interfered with the neurons' ability to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought.

Dr Itzhak Fried, professor of neurosurgery at UCLA said the effect could prevent a exhausted person noticing a pedestrian stepping in front of a auto.

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The clinical study by Yuval Nir from Tel Aviv University and colleagues was published in the journal Nature Medicine. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual'. With slow, sleep-like waves disrupting brain activity, negatively affecting the patients' performance, it suggested that certain parts of the brain were shutting down, leading to mental lapses, while other parts are active and running normally.

"It takes longer for his brain to register what he is perceiving", Nir said.

The study's findings raise questions about how society views sleep deprivation.

They found that lack of sleep causes bursts of electrical activity that brain cells use in communication to weaken and slow down.

"Since drowsy driving can be as risky as drunk driving, we hope to one day translate these results into a practical way of measuring drowsiness in exhausted individuals before they pose a threat to anyone or anything", Nir said.

The long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation have been associated with hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke. Research has also shown that medical school residents who work long shifts without sleep are more prone to make errors in patient care.

Now a study by researchers from UCLA, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Tel Aviv University, Nanthia Suthana of UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is helping to shed some light on why.

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