Sleep-deprivation similar to being drunk

Brain cells called neurons were found to fire more weakly and take longer to respond in a study of 12 people kept awake all night

But despite the small size its authors believe it can tell us important details about the effect of sleep deprivation on the functioning of brain cells. Thus, affecting the way we perceive the external world while provoking "cognitive lapses".

"Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain as drinking too much", said lead author Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at UCLA. "Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers".

Co-author Dr Yuval Nir, from Tel Aviv University in Israel, said: "The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's over-tired brain". As part of the procedure, doctors placed wires connected to the brain to find out where a patient's seizures started.

Fried warned that driving especially is risky when a person is sleep deprived and that is evident from this study.

The study participants had to stay awake all night to speed up the onset of an epileptic episode. As subjects grew tired, brain cells fired less.

Scientists scanned the brains of 12 sleep-deprived people and found how tiredness interfered with the ability of neurons to encode information and translate what was seen into conscious thought.

The researchers asked the patients to divide an amount of different pictures into separated groups.

For the test, the patients had to categorise a variety of images as fast as possible while the implants recorded their brain activity.

The scientists zeroed in on the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.

The researchers also discovered that slow 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 Prof Fried.

Exhausted neurons respond more slowly than usual and take longer to transmit weaker signals, a study found.

Although the UCLA team did not recommend any amount of hours to sleep, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations consider that an average adult should sleep between seven and nine hours per night.

In future research, Fried and his colleagues plan to more deeply explore the benefits of sleep, and to unravel the mechanism responsible for the cellular glitches that precede mental lapses.

The long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation have been associated with hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

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