Brain Does Not
Work Right After
Sleepless Nights
By Patricia Reaney
LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists have now proved what college students, shift workers and parents know so well -- the brain does not work properly after a sleepless night.
In what could be the first step toward devising ways to alleviate the effects of sleep deprivation and jet lag, researchers in California have monitored brain activity to see how it compensates for lack of sleep.
They found that the effects of sleep deprivation differed depending on what the brain was asked to do -- the sleepy brain increases activity in certain regions if it has to deal with verbal problems but slows down for mathematical dilemmas.
On average, people are 50 percent less successful at simple memory tests after a sleepless night than their well-rested counterparts.
``We don't know very much about how sleep deprivation impairs performance, and how precisely the brain reacts to lack of sleep,'' J. Christian Gillin, psychiatry professor at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), said in a statement.
``As we learn more, perhaps we will be able to devise interventions to alleviate the behavioral impairments associated with lack of sleep.''
Gillin and scientists at the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in San Diego tested 13 people who had been kept awake for 35 hours and monitored their brain activity using sophisticated brain scans.
Their research, published in the latest edition of the science journal Nature, showed a lot of the increased brain activity was in the parietal lobes of the brain leading them to suspect they may play a special role in compensating for lack of sleep.
The parietal lobes are the system primarily associated with arithmetic performance when people are well rested.
The parietal lobes of the sleepy volunteers were activated during verbal tests but less so for mathematical problems.
``So when it (the parietal lobes) becomes less responsive with sleeplessness, there is not a brain system available to come online to compensate for the negative effects of sleep deprivation,'' said UCSD's Gregory Brown, who contributed to the research.
Jim Horne, head of the sleep research laboratory at Loughborough University in England, said the study shed new light on what goes on inside the brain.
``Those bits of the brain that work the hardest in wakefulness seem to show the greatest effects of sleep loss,'' he told Reuters. ``They seem to try and compensate by pulling in other bits of spare brain capacity to help out.''


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