The science behind brain farts: Why less sleep creates mental lapses

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

This new study claims that lack of sleep can obstruct the communication of the brain cells which leads to mental and memory disorders in human beings. The disconnect can lead to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

The findings were published this week online in Nature Medicine. "This leads to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us", the professor of neurosurgery added.

"The study showed that what we can measure behaviorally - a slowing down of responses - goes down to the level of the neurons", said UCLA's Fried by phone. As part of the procedure, doctors placed wires connected to the brain to find out where a patient's seizures started.

Dr Fried led an global team studying 12 people with epilepsy, who had electrodes implanted in their brains in order to pinpoint the origin of their seizures.

After being kept awake all night to accelerate their medical diagnosis, the patients were presented with images of famous people and places, which they were asked to identify as quickly as possible.

Then, four of the patients stayed up all night before looking at more images.

Scientists have now discovered that the actual problem with sleep deprivation is that your brain cells switch off while you are still awake, leading to anything from forgetting your keys to vehicle crashes.

"Unlike the usual rapid reaction", he says, "the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual".

Lack of sleep interfered with the neurons' ability to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought.

Researchers explain that the same thing could happen when a sleepy driver notices a pedestrian walking in front of his vehicle.

"The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's overtired brain", Fried said. "It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving", says Dr. Nir.

The researchers also discovered that slower brain waves accompanied sluggish cellular activity in the temporal lobe and other parts of the brain. The electrodes recorded the firing of roughly 1,500 brain cells from all the patients.

Science, as ever, comes to save my honor - this time, with a study looking into the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain.

"Slow sleep-like waves disrupted the patients' brain activity and performance of tasks", said Fried.

The importance of learning more on the effects surrounding sleep deprivation and conversely, the benefits of deep sleep, can not overstated.

The global team behind the study wants to see the problem of sleep deprivation taken more seriously, both in the harm it can do to our own bodies and the risks that we might be taking when we get behind the wheel or do our daily jobs. Some epilepsy patients develop seizures on sleep deprivation.

The research received support from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health and other organizations.

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