A new study has revealed that lack of sleep can adversely affect the working of the brain in critical situations.

The research team led by Dr W. Todd Maddox, Professor of psychology, and Dr David M. Schnyer, Associate Professor of psychology at the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Texas in Austin, has shown that lack of sleep causes some people to shift from a more automatic, implicit process of information categorization (information-integration) to a more controlled, explicit process (rule-based). Many tasks performed on a daily basis require information-integration processing rather than rule-based categorization e.g. driving, making a medical diagnosis and performing air-traffic control.

Fast and accurate categorization is critical in situations that could become a matter of life or death. However, categorization may become compromised in people who often experience sleep deprivation in fast-paced, high pressure roles such as doctors, fire-fighters, soldiers and even parents.

The study results show that sleep deprivation led to an overall performance deficit on an information-integration category learning task that was held over the course of two days. Performance improved in the control group by 4.3 per cent from the end of day one to the beginning of day two (accuracy increased from 74 per cent to 78.3 per cent); performance in the sleep-deprived group declined by 2.4 per cent (accuracy decreased from 73.1 per cent to 70.7 per cent) from the end of day one to the beginning of day two.

“Some categorization problems involve conscious, explicit processing that relies heavily on frontal brain systems. Processing in these systems is known to be adversely affected by sleep deprivation,” said the researchers.

“Other categorization problems involve non-conscious, implicit processing that relies heavily on procedural learning and the striatum.

“The current study suggests that processing in these systems is minimally affected by sleep deprivation, but that performance can suffer because sleep deprivation leads many individuals to rely on explicit processes when implicit processes are necessary,” they added.

The study appears in journal Sleep.

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