Research into sleep deprivation typically focuses on the loss of cognitive ability that comes from not getting enough sleep. But doctors such as Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania’s Unit for Experimental Psychiatry are looking into what happens when you get too little sleep during the week and then try to make up for it on the weekend.
Basner, who says this is a common problem, said one danger is the disconnect between how sleepy people feel versus how alert they actually are.
“What we showed is that at some point people get used to feeling sleepy. This is of course dangerous in a way, too,” he said. “People think they are ready to perform, they’re good to go, they’re fresh – when in fact they’re not. They just got used to this feeling of being sleepy.”.
Marcia Braun, who works at the unit’s lab, explained that four sleep-deprived subjects become accustomed to the dimmed lights throughout their 18-day stay.
Dr. David Dinges, who is leading these studies, said his research produced two discoveries. First, that even with marathon sleep sessions, we still may not reach 100 percent cognitive ability going into the next week.
“The second surprise,” said Dinges, “were these individual differences. The fact that some people could resist this and others were just profoundly and catastrophically impaired by it suggested that there is an underlying biological mechanism that we need to search for.”
Some sleepy participants in Dinges’ study could barely perform the tasks simulated on the computers in the lab, like driving a car and problem solving. Others did them with little noticeable difference.
Dinges and Basner will present this research at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology‘s annual meeting in Philadelphia this week.