New study reveals sleep deprivation disrupts brain-cell communication

November 6, 2017, University of California, Los Angeles
Sleep-deprived brain cells react more slowly and fire more weakly, and their signals are more drawn out. Credit: UCLA

Ever sleep poorly and then walk out of the house without your keys? Or space out on the highway and nearly hit a stalled car?

A new study is the first to reveal how disrupts our brain cells' ability to communicate with each other, leading to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and .

"We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly," said senior author Dr. Itzhak Fried, professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Tel Aviv University. "This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us."

Fried led an international team in studying 12 UCLA epileptic patients who had electrodes implanted in their brains in order to pinpoint the origin of their seizures prior to surgery. Because lack of sleep can provoke seizures, these patients stay awake all night to speed the onset of an epileptic episode and shorten their hospital stay.

The team asked the patients to categorize a variety of images as fast as possible while their electrodes recorded the firing of nearly 1,500 single brain cells across the group in real time. The scientists zeroed in on the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.

Performing the task grew more challenging as the patients grew sleepier. As the patients slowed down, their did, too.

"We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity," said lead author Dr. Yuval Nir of Tel-Aviv University. "Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual."

Lack of sleep interfered with the neurons' ability to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought.

UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Itzhak Fried explains how lack of sleep sabotages brain cells' ability to communicate with each other, leading to mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception. Credit: UCLA

The same phenomenon can occur when a sleep-deprived driver notices a pedestrian stepping in front of his car.

"The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's over-tired brain," he explained. "It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving."

In a second finding, the researchers discovered that slower brain waves accompanied sluggish cellular activity in the same regions of the patients' brains.

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

The study's findings provoke questions for how society views sleep deprivation.

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

Fried and his colleagues plan to dive more deeply into the benefits of sleep. Future studies aim to unravel the mechanism responsible for the cellular glitches that precede mental lapses.

Previous studies have tied sleep deprivation to a heightened risk of depression, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke, as well as medical errors.

The study is published in Nature Medicine.

Explore further: Study suggests REM sleep helps the brain capture snapshots of dream images

More information: Selective neuronal lapses precede human cognitive lapses following sleep deprivation, Nature Medicine, nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nm.4433

Related Stories

Study suggests REM sleep helps the brain capture snapshots of dream images

August 12, 2015
When we sleep, we experience our most vivid dreams and vigorous brain activity during the rapid eye movement, or REM phase. Although scientists have long suspected that our eyes flicker in response to what our unconscious ...

Information processing breakdown in sleep-deprived rats

September 25, 2017
Sleep deprivation may disrupt the brain's ability to integrate information over time, potentially contributing to the decline in cognitive performance observed during extended time awake, suggests a study in rats published ...

Sleep and Alzheimer's disease connection

October 17, 2017
How often do you get a good night's sleep? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend adults get an average of at least seven hours of sleep a night. Dr. Ronald Petersen, a Mayo Clinic neurologist, says ...

Deep sleep critical for visual learning

October 4, 2017
Remember those "Magic Eye" posters from the 1990s? You let your eyes relax, and out of the tessellating structures, a 3-D image of a dolphin or a yin yang or a shark would emerge.

New insights into how sleep helps the brain to reorganise itself

October 2, 2017
A study has given new insights into how sleep contributes to brain plasticity – the ability for our brain to change and reorganise itself – and could pave the way for new ways to help people with learning and memory disorders.

Developing brain regions in children hardest hit by sleep deprivation

October 4, 2016
A team of researchers from the University of Zurich has studied the effects of acute sleep deprivation in children for the first time. They discovered that the brain in five to 12-year-olds responds differently to sleep deprivation ...

Recommended for you

Study of protein 'trafficker' provides insight into autism and other brain disorders

September 22, 2018
In the brain, as in business, connections are everything. To maintain cellular associates, the outer surface of a neuron, its membrane, must express particular proteins—proverbial hands that reach out and greet nearby cells. ...

Breast milk may be best for premature babies' brain development

September 21, 2018
Babies born before their due date show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula, a study has found.

Early warning sign of psychosis detected

September 21, 2018
Brains of people at risk of psychosis exhibit a pattern that can help predict whether they will go on to develop full-fledged schizophrenia, a new Yale-led study shows. The findings could help doctors begin early intervention ...

White matter repair and traumatic brain injury

September 20, 2018
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a leading cause of death and disability in the U.S., contributing to about 30 percent of all injury deaths, according to the CDC. TBI causes damage to both white and gray matter in the brain, ...

Gut branches of vagus nerve essential components of brain's reward and motivation system

September 20, 2018
A novel gut-to-brain neural circuit establishes the vagus nerve as an essential component of the brain system that regulates reward and motivation, according to research conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount ...

Genomic dark matter activity connects Parkinson's and psychiatric diseases

September 20, 2018
Dopamine neurons are located in the midbrain, but their tendril-like axons can branch far into the higher cortical areas, influencing how we move and how we feel. New genetic evidence has revealed that these specialized cells ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.