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New Research Shows Why Sleep Deprived Brain Poses Such Tremendous Danger

Over the last several years, there have been increasing reports of tragic accidents that have been attributed to sleep deprivation. The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, the recent train derailment on the Long Island Railroad, and most recently the truck accident that took the life of comedian Tracey Morgan’s friend, and which seriously injured Morgan himself are just a few examples. Researchers have been working to understand exactly what the mechanism is that makes sleep deprivation so dangerous, and a new study conducted by researchers at Duke University and the National University of Singapore has indicated that people who are sleep deprived have extended periods in which their brains function normally, but these are interspersed with periods in which response is slow and visual processing and attention drop precipitously.

According to lead researcher Professor Michael Chee, “The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security when, in fact, the brain’s inconsistency could have dire consequences.” This is of particular concern for those who are working and driving at night or operating heavy machinery. It is also worrying for surgeons and physicians working late into the night.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, indicated that even when sleep deprived the brain was able to see and respond to simple visuals such as flashing checkerboards, but when required to use higher visual hours that required applying existing knowledge and making reasonable decisions, function declined. “Herein lies the peril of sleep deprivation,” says Chee. The discovery was made through the use of magnetic resonance imaging, which measured the amount of blood that flowed to specific areas of the brain as subjects, both sleep deprived and allowed to sleep, were asked to partake in different activities.

Among the tests that the subjects were asked to do, they were shown large displays of either the letter H or the Letter S, with each composed of smaller h’s or s’s as appropriate, but in some cases the smaller letters did not match the bigger ones. The subjects were each asked to push buttons as they identified either the smaller or larger letters, and the results showed that those who were sleep deprived experienced dramatic declines in the area of the brain that controlled their ability to perform this activity. Not only was their less overall activity in their higher visual cortex area, but the frontal and parietal control regions of the brain were less able to self correct for lapses in their own attention spans. Upon analysis, the scientists were able to identify actual lapses that were specific to sleep deprivation.

Speaking to the team’s results, Harvard University’s Dr. Clifford Saper said, “The main finding is that the brain of the sleep-deprived individual is working normally sometimes, but intermittently suffers from something akin to power failure.

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