Researchers see gene influencing performance of sleep-deprived people

December 20, 2017 by Will Ferguson, Washington State University
Researchers remotely monitor subjects participating in a study at the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane. Credit: WSU

Washington State University researchers have discovered a genetic variation that predicts how well people perform certain mental tasks when they are sleep deprived.

Their research shows that individuals with a particular variation of the DRD2 gene are resilient to the effects of when completing tasks that require cognitive flexibility, the ability to make appropriate decisions based on changing information.

Sleep-deprived people with two other variations of the gene tend to perform much more poorly on the same kinds of tasks, the researchers found.

The DRD2 dopamine receptor gene influences the processing of information in the striatum, a region of the brain that is known to be involved in cognitive flexibility.

"Our work shows that there are people who are resilient to the effects of sleep deprivation when it comes to cognitive flexibility. Surprisingly these same people are just as affected as everyone else on other tasks that require different cognitive abilities, such as maintaining focus," said Paul Whitney, a WSU professor of psychology and lead author of the study, which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports. "This confirms something we have long suspected, namely that the effects of sleep deprivation are not general in nature, but rather depend on the specific task and the of the person performing the task."

Researcher sets up for an experiment at the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane. Credit: WSU
Why sleep loss affects us differently

When deprived of sleep, some people respond better than others. Scientists have identified genes associated with this, but they have wondered why the effects of tend to vary widely across both individuals and cognitive tasks. For example, after a day without sleep, some people might struggle with a reaction time test but perform well on decision-making tasks, or vice versa.

In the current study, Whitney, along with colleagues John Hinson, WSU professor of psychology, and Hans Van Dongen, director of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane, compared how people with different variations of the DRD2 gene performed on tasks designed to test both their ability to anticipate events and their cognitive flexibility in response to changing circumstances.

Forty-nine adults participated in the study at the WSU Spokane sleep laboratory. After a 10-hour rest period, 34 participants were randomly selected to go 38 hours without sleep while the other participants were allowed to sleep normally.

Before and after the period of sleep deprivation, subjects were shown a series of letter pairings on a computer screen and told to click the left mouse button for a certain letter combination (e.g., an A followed by an X) and the right mouse button for all other letter pairs. After a while, both the sleep-deprived group and the rested group were able to identify the pattern and click correctly for various letter pairs.

Then came the tricky part: in the middle of the , researchers told the participants to now click the left mouse button for a different letter combination. The sudden switch confounded most of the sleep-deprived participants, but those who had a particular variation of the DRD2 gene handled the switch as well as they did when well-rested.

"Our research shows this particular gene influences a person's ability to mentally change direction when given new information," Van Dongen said. "Some people are protected from the effects of sleep deprivation by this particular gene variation but, for most of us, sleep loss does something to the brain that simply prevents us from switching gears when circumstances change."

Training to cope with sleep loss

Sleep deprivation's effect on cognitive flexibility can have serious consequences, especially in high stakes, real-world situations like an emergency room or military operations where the ability to respond to changing circumstances is critical. For example, after a night without sleep, a surgeon might notice a spike in a patient's vital signs midway through a procedure but be unable to use this information to decide on a better course of action.

The WSU research team is currently applying what they learned from their study to develop new ways to help surgeons, police officers, soldiers and other individuals who regularly deal with the effects of sleep deprivation in critical, dynamic settings cope with the loss of .

"Our long-term goal is to be able to train people so that no matter what their genetic composition is, they will be able to recognize and respond appropriately to changing scenarios, and be less vulnerable to sleep loss." Whitney said. "Of course, the more obvious solution is to just get some sleep, but in a lot of real-world situations, we don't have that luxury."

Explore further: Counteracting poor decision-making due to sleep loss

More information: Paul Whitney et al, Sleep Deprivation Diminishes Attentional Control Effectiveness and Impairs Flexible Adaptation to Changing Conditions, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-16165-z

Related Stories

Counteracting poor decision-making due to sleep loss

July 19, 2016
Researchers from Washington State University's Sleep and Performance Research Center received a $1.7 million grant to develop and test cognitive flexibility training to combat the effects of sleep loss on decision-making ...

An epidemic of dream deprivation: Review finds unrecognized health hazard of sleep loss

September 29, 2017
A silent epidemic of dream loss is at the root of many of the health concerns attributed to sleep loss, according to Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, ...

Disrupted sleep linked to increased amyloid-beta production

December 13, 2017
(HealthDay)—Disrupted sleep is associated with increased amyloid-β production in adults, according to a study published online Dec. 8 in the Annals of Neurology.

Hypoglycemia, sleep loss prolong cognitive impairment

April 5, 2016
(HealthDay)—Sleep deprivation does not exacerbate cognitive impairment induced by hypoglycemia, but the post-hypoglycemia recovery takes longer with persistence of both cognitive dysfunction and hypoglycemia symptoms, according ...

Research shows sleep loss impedes decision making in crisis

May 7, 2015
The difference between life and death in the operating room, on the battlefield or during a police shootout often comes down to the ability to adapt to the unexpected. Sleep deprivation may make it difficult to do so, according ...

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 ...

Recommended for you

Get a warrant: Researchers demand better DNA protections

December 18, 2018
New laws are required to control access to medical genetic data by law enforcement agencies, an analysis by University of Queensland researchers has found.

Geneticists make new discovery about how a baby's sex is determined

December 14, 2018
Medical researchers at Melbourne's Murdoch Children's Research Institute have made a new discovery about how a baby's sex is determined—it's not just about the X-Y chromosomes, but involves a 'regulator' that increases ...

Scientists identify method to study resilience to pain

December 14, 2018
Scientists at the Yale School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System have successfully demonstrated that it is possible to pinpoint genes that contribute to inter-individual differences in pain.

Researchers uncover molecular mechanisms linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 13, 2018
Since the completion of the groundbreaking Human Genome Project in 2003, researchers have discovered changes to hundreds of places in the DNA, called genetic variants, associated with psychiatric diseases such as autism spectrum ...

CRISPR joins battle of the bulge, fights obesity without edits to genome

December 13, 2018
A weighty new study shows that CRISPR therapies can cut fat without cutting DNA. In a paper published Dec. 13, 2018, in the journal Science, UC San Francisco researchers describe how a modified version of CRISPR was used ...

Noncoding mutations contribute to autism risk

December 13, 2018
A whole-genome sequencing study of nearly 2,000 families has implicated mutations in 'promoter regions' of the genome—regions that precede the start of a gene—in autism. The study, which appears in the December 14 issue ...

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.