How Sleep Deprivation Works


Sleep Deprivation, Memory and Cognitive Health
You might not be your most attractive when you sleep, but your body and brain are doing important things.
You might not be your most attractive when you sleep, but your body and brain are doing important things.
©WebSubstance/iStock/Thinkstock

Sleep is the only opportunity for the brain to get organized -- truly organized, not just piling files on the desk and promising to get back to them later. When we don't sleep, our brains don't have an opportunity to, as some researchers like to call it, take out the trash. While it sounds funny, there's science behind it -- we know that sleep deprivation really seems to speed up the development and the progress of neurodegenerative diseases, including two biggies: Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. And researchers suspect it's because without sleep, the body's glymphatic system (the central nervous system's cleaning service) isn't able to trash the waste that builds up throughout the day. In this case, the trash is cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) thick with accumulated proteins and toxins. We also know that a lack of sleep causes permanent brain cell loss, likely due to how a sleep-deprived body is unable to properly manage cell growth and repair. If you don't clean up from time to time -- or nightly, in this case -- you're signing up for memory problems and an overall cognitive decline.

While you're sleeping, your brain is also busy doing some high-level cognitive activities, including reviewing and sorting information from the day, and flagging important and novel things that should be committed to memory. When we learn and store information in our memory, that information is moved from the hippocampus (which is known as the memory-creating region of the brain) to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), specifically the neocortex region, which is where we form and store long-term memories. This happens every night, while we sleep. Without deep sleep a few problems may arise: First, we simply can't recall -- literally. And second, a phenomenon known as false memories may also happen to people who sleep five or fewer hours every night. Fatigue impacts not only memory recall, but also how you process information in general. You can't properly access memories, and you also can't properly encode information when you learn it. That makes what you think you know unreliable, or, at the very worst, incorrect.

Author's Note: How Sleep Deprivation Works

Tired? A 26-minute nap, it turns out, is a better booster than a cup of coffee (or a few cups of coffee). It can boost your mental performance by as much as 34 percent and your overall alertness by 54 percent for more than three hours post-nap. Jon Stewart may have called insomnia his greatest inspiration, but I have to wonder what he could do if he embraced napping instead.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Asleep at the wheel: The Prevalence and Impact of Drowsy Driving." November 2010. (Aug. 1, 2014) https://www.aaafoundation.org/sites/default/files/2010DrowsyDrivingReport_1.pdf
  • Ackerman, Katrin. "Diurnal Rhythms in Blood Cell Populations and the Effect of Acute Sleep Deprivation in Healthy Young Men." Sleep. Vol. 35, no. 7. Pages 933-940. 2012. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=28578
  • American Psychological Association (APA). "More Sleep Would Make Most Americans Happier, Healthier and Safer."February 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.apa.org/research/action/sleep-deprivation.aspx
  • American Sleep Research Institute (ASRI). "Sleep Surfaces." (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.asri.net/sleepsurfaces.shtml
  • Breus, Michael J. "Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think." WebMD. March 15, 2006. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/important-sleep-habits
  • Edlund, Matthew. "Can Insomnia Kill You?" Psychology Today. Aug. 26, 2010. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-rest/201008/can-insomnia-kill-you
  • Frenda, Steven J. "Sleep Deprivation and False Memories." Psychological Science. Vol. 25, no. 7. July 16, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/07/15/0956797614534694.full
  • Frenda, Steven. "Sleep Deprivation May Increase Susceptibility to False Memories." Association for Psychological Science (APS). July 23, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/sleep-deprivation-may-increase-susceptibility-to-false-memories.html
  • Geoghegan, Tom. "Who, What, Why: How long is the ideal nap?" BBC News. April 26, 2011. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-13232034
  • Griffin, R. Morgan. "6 Surprising Sleep Wreckers." WebMD. Sept. 5, 2011. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/6-surprising-sleep-wreckers
  • Harvard Medical School, Division of Sleep Medicine. "Judgment and Safety." Dec. 16, 2008. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/whats-in-it-for-you/judgment-safety
  • Hellmich, Nanci. "If you don't snooze, you lose, health experts say." USA Today. June 22, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/06/22/sleep-series-health-benefits/7299461/
  • Horning, Eric; and Elizabeth Stuart. "Fatal Insomnia: When Sleeplessness Kills." ABC News. April 26, 2010. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/MindMoodNews/fatal-insomnia-sleeplessness-kills/story?id=10479079
  • Hoyt, Alia. "How dangerous is sleep deprivation, really? CNN. March 18, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/11/health/upwave-sleep-deprivation
  • Hughes, Virginia. "Phenomena: Only Human: The Chatty Hippocampus." National Geographic. July 29, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/07/29/the-chatty-hippocampus/
  • Jones, Jeffrey M. "In U.S., 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep." Gallup. Dec. 19, 2013. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.gallup.com/poll/166553/less-recommended-amount-sleep.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=USA%20-%20Well-Being
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Up All Night: The science of sleeplessness." The New Yorker. March 11, 2013. (Aug. 1,2 014) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/03/11/up-all-night-2?currentPage=all
  • Konnikova, Maria. "Goodnight. Sleep Clean." The New York Times Sunday Review. Jan. 11, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/opinion/sunday/goodnight-sleep-clean.html
  • Mikulski, Jessica. "Penn Medicine Researchers Show How Lost Sleep Leads to Lost Neurons." University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine. March 18, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/2014/03/veasey/
  • Moller-Levet, Carla S. "Effects of insufficient sleep on circadian rhythmicity and expression amplitude of the human blood transcriptome." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Feb. 25, 2013. (Aug. 1,2 014) http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/02/20/1217154110
  • Naidoo, Nirinjini. "Aging and sleep deprivation induce the unfolded protein response in the pancreas: implications for metabolism." Aging Cell. Vol. 13, no. 1 Pages 131-141. February 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acel.12158/full
  • National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). "Neuroscience." Second edition. 2001. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10996/
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep." July 25, 2014. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/brain_basics/understanding_sleep.htm
  • Spaeth, Andrea M. "Effects of Experimental Sleep Restriction on Weight Gain, Caloric Intake, and Meal Timing in Healthy Adults." Sleep. Vol. 36, no. 7. Pages 981-999. 2013. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=29022
  • Stobbe, Mike. "CDC: Sleep Deprivation Affects A Third Of Americans." The Huffington Post. March 3, 2011. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/03/cdc-sleep_n_831005.html
  • The Week. "Going to work sleepy: As bad as showing up drunk?" May 6, 2010. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://theweek.com/article/index/202658/going-to-work-sleepy-as-bad-as-showing-up-drunk
  • Williamson, A.M. "Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of intoxication." Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Vol. 57. Pages 649-655. June 15, 2000. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://oem.bmj.com/content/57/10/649.long
  • Xie, Lulu. "Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain." Science. Vol. 342, no. 6156. Pages 373-377. October 18, 2013. (Aug. 1, 2014) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/373.full

More to Explore