A Neuroscientist Explains What Happens to Your Brain When You Don't Sleep
Sleep deprivation affects nearly all parts of your brain, but it is most detrimental to simple cognitive functions that we take for granted, such as memory and staying alert.
Ph.D. neuroscience candidate Shannon Odell says scientific research suggests that sleep deprivation majorly reduces cognitive performance. Studies have shown that patients have significantly reduced their thinking ability after just one night of sleep deprivation, specifically in the hippocampus, also known as the memory center.
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If you’ve ever wandered into your kitchen at four in the morning and then stared at your cabinets for 10 minutes trying to remember why you came into the kitchen in the first place, there’s a good chance you should just go to bed and figure it out in the morning.
The phenomenon known as microsleep — brief, 30-second episodes of sleep — is also responsible for messing up the brain’s ability to focus. You might refer to this as “nodding off,” which 38 percent of adults experience regularly. Your brain literally shuts off for a few seconds and, usually, you catch yourself and abruptly jolt awake. When you don’t catch yourself, that’s when you zonk the f*ck out.
If you have a close friend or partner who constantly gets less than eight hours of sleep a night, you have probably noticed they can sometimes turn into an insatiable, grumpy monster. Scientists call this an “increase in negative mood state.” One 2007 study from Current Biology found that this general bad feeling is probably related to a disconnect in the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex in sleep-deprived patients. So, at least you have a scientific reason for being so insufferable, Deborah.
Overall, the warnings you’ve heard your whole life are true. Though it is slightly different for each person, generally, you should be getting eight hours of sleep per night. Long-term sleep deprivation can cause serious degenerative issues for your brain, so do yourself a favor and get some shut-eye. But before you do, watch the latest episode of Your Brain on (Blank), featuring a very sleepy Shannon Odell.
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