How lack of sleep affects the brain: the largest study in history

How lack of sleep affects the brain: the largest study in history

Canadian scientists have begun the most ambitious to date, research into the effects of sleep deprivation on the human brain. A group of researchers from the University of Western Ontario encourages volunteers from around the world go online and take a series of cognitive tests.

Fergus Walsh

Explorer bi-Bi-si on medical issues

With the help of specially developed computer programs wishing to assess their skills of logic, language understanding, and decision-making.

I also decided to pass the tests, agreeing that my brain will be scanned.


The study is headed by British Professor-neurologist Adrian Owen, working at the Institute for brain and mind at the University of Western Ontario.

“We all know the feeling arising from the lack of sleep, but we know little about how this lack affects the brain, explains Professor Owen. — We want to find out how this affects cognitive ability, memory and ability to concentrate”.

In the course of the research, the scientists intend to figure out how are different cognitive indicators in people depending on how many they were allotted for sleep.

Of course, the need for sleep vary from person to person, however, if the researchers manage to recruit a sufficient number of volunteers, they will be able to determine the average number of hours of sleep required for optimal functioning of the brain.

I joined a group of 4 volunteers who agreed to spend the night at the University of Western Ontario, where we experienced the “brain games” that demonstrated how the ability to perceive information depending on the sleep duration.


  • Dr. Houman Ganjavi, 42, a psychiatrist, working with patients in the night shift: “4-5 hours of sleep per night is my norm. I know that lack of sleep leads to heart disease and can cause a stroke, but like many doctors, I myself will not carry it”.
  • Sylvia Salewski, 31. The mother of two girls, under age 5 years: “Good night is when they Wake me two or three times. I don’t remember what it’s like to sleep peacefully all night, and I often feel scattered in the morning.”
  • Evan Agnew, 75 years old, retired, worked as a clerk in the night shift: “I’ve never needed to sleep for 8 hours straight, and at my age now I don’t need more than 4 hours straight. I get sleep in the afternoon, prokorov a couple of times”.
  • Cecilia Kramar, 31 years old, the neurologist, she is studying the cognitive abilities of mice night, so she often has to stay late at the lab: “If I was not able to sleep, the next day I can’t do anything complicated like reading scientific papers, because my brain is unable to function.”


Tests made available to the study authors, can be played on desktop computers, tablets and even smartphones.

“Double trouble”: At first glance, everything is simple, but this test makes you stir your gray matter. You need to click on the word below, the corresponding color of that written word at the top. If the word at the top — “blue”, but it is red, you must click on the word below, written in red, even if the word is”blue”. Sounds crazy….

“Remove the extra”: the test starts off easy but becomes more complicated as you are trying to find a figure, something that stands out.

Grammar logic: is the statement about the diagram are true or false? At first glance, there is nothing difficult when it comes to negative statements.

Spatial planning: these tests, like all games, test your planning ability, measuring cognitive skills that you constantly use in everyday life.

How’d we do?

We stayed up until 4 o’clock in the morning, after which we were allowed to sleep for 4 hours.

When we again passed on the morning of the cognitive test, the results of Evan’s, Cecilia’s and mine were much worse than the night before.

The result of Humana, who used to work with patients in shifts, hardly changed, while Sylvia has it even improved.

“Although this morning I feel a bit scattered, maybe the fact that I’m used to little sleep, she explains. I need to join as soon as Wake up the children, so for me it’s fine.”

I always knew that if I didn’t get enough sleep, poorly functioning, so there was nothing surprising in the fact that in the morning my cognitive indicators fell sharply.

To find out what happens in my brain, I repeated the cognitive test is already inside of magnetic resonance imaging.

I was scanned twice: after a normal night’s sleep and after a sleepless night.

MRI is able to detect blood flows in the brain: areas with increased activity characterized by stronger flows on the chart look like orange blobs.

The difference between the two scans was impressive: after a sleepless night my brain activity was clearly inadequate, it was observed much less processes.

“Activity in the frontal and parietal lobes, which are known to be responsible for decisions, memory and decision task, markedly reduced”, explains Professor Owen.

We all know how dangerous it is to drive tired, since the reaction slows down, and you can fall asleep at the wheel.

However, we know much less about the subtle effects of daily sleep deprivation.

“It is possible that lack of sleep can have a significant impact on decision-making, and perhaps we should avoid making such important decisions as buying a home or getting married, not having slept properly,” says Professor Owen.

Why is it so important?

We spend in sleep almost third of life, and sleep is as important as food and air we breathe.

However, the modern pace of life means that sleep is less time.

However, as noted in the article, published in the scientific journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, we are surprisingly poorly understood effects of chronic lack of sleep to our brain.

The article said about a sharp decline in length of sleep in developed countries, and noted the acute need for additional research.

Those volunteers who participated in the sleep study, helped in the search of important answers, which are equally in need and our society, and scientists.