You Don’t Snooze You Lose

Friday 15th January 2010

Published yesterday in Science Translational Medicine, it was revealed what many had already feared – if you have chronic sleep loss one night, refreshing sleeps for the next few days may not be enough to eradicate the effects of your lost sleep. It comes with a dire warning for people with long shift patterns; e.g. lorry drivers, as experts warn that continual amounts of sleep loss without the right sleep pattern can dramatically reduce concentration and performance to a point where they are putting themselves and others in danger.

The test, conducted in Boston at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital involved 9 volunteers who were all healthy and had no previous concentration issues. They were asked to adopt a pattern of sleeping and wakefulness similar to people who work long shifts. Over a period of three weeks the volunteers took up a sleep and awake cycle as follows: their days were divided up into periods of 43 hours, in which they were awake for 32.85 hours and asleep for 10 hours. Meaning for just 24 hours they were only receiving 5.6 hours of sleep. The patients were then monitored in several different ways; their overall performance over the 33 hours awake, reaction speeds and so on. Scientists used these results alongside the 24 hour circadian rhythm that the body naturally adopts which revealed that things like reactions speeds were faster when this natural rhythm was at its highest point (generally in the early evening). However, when this circadian rhythm was at a natural low (late at night) the reaction speeds were severely reduced. Therefore showing that towards the end of their 33 hour shift, these volunteers had severely impaired performance issues, which serves as a stark reminder of just how many shift workers could be at this same level.

Overall, the longer that this sleep cycle continues, the more the body seems unable to cope, particularly with concentration. This test reveals not only the short-term affects of sleep deprivation, but long term. It is hoped that the test can help shift workers find healthier sleep patterns, and could help treat those suffering from sleep disorders. 

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