When you don’t get enough sleep, parts of your brain are going to take catnaps the next day, even while you’re ostensibly up and awake, a new study suggests. The results can have real-world consequences, says lead researcher Itzhak Fried of UCLA, who uses the example of a driver slow to pick up on a pedestrian. “The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s overtired brain,” he explains in a UCLA release.
In fact, it’s very much as if the driver has had too much to drink. And while police have standard tests to measure for booze, “no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers,” notes Fried. The research is based on a small sample12 people who had to forgo sleep for a whole night because of epilepsy surgery in the morning.
But that still gave Fried’s team a unique opportunity to gauge brain function (through memory tests and the like) as the night wore on. Electrodes gave them a sense of what was happening in the increasingly tired brain, and the researchers discovered that parts would essentially shut down and try to “sleep,” impairing function.