Ever try to operate on far too little sleep? Noticed how staying on task gets more challenging, or how focus becomes slippery? The dangers of sleep deprivation are well-documented, but there’s more we can learn. That’s why researchers at London, Ontario’s Western University have started the world’s largest sleep study.
To make it the world’s largest, they’re going to need a lot of participants. They’re hoping for at least 100,000 people to sign up online and take part. Crowdsourcing data will allow for new correlations to be made between sleep patterns, demographics, and cognitive, spatial and decision-making abilities.
Western University neuroscientist Adrian Owen is heading up the sleep and cognition study. He intends to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge of how the brain handles sleep deprivation.
“What specifically happens in different regions of our brains when we sleep or don’t sleep? How much sleep is ‘enough’? Is there a long-term effect on brain health as well as a short-term effect?” asks Owen. “We all know you shouldn’t drive if you’re too tired — but should you decide to get married, buy a car or design a bridge if you’ve been up half the night? And if there is an impact, is it the same across all ages and jobs or is it different for seniors, young moms, students, shift-workers, equipment operators?”
The sleep study will allow Owen’s team to answer some of those questions. Testing is being done entirely online. If you sign up, you’ll be asked to track your sleep over the course of three days. You’ll also need complete a set of scientifically-valid tests of brain function. The tests are similar to the ones you might find in a brain training game: identifying the color of shape that has another color’s name written on it, recognizing whether a statement about a diagram is true or false, and so on.
Western University invited five volunteers to complete an in-house version of the study, which involved intentional sleep deprivation and MRI scanning. BBC medical correspondent Fregus Walsh was one of the participants, and he reported on his experience:
After staying up until 04:00, we were allowed four hours’ sleep.
When we re-did the cognitive tests later in the morning, Evan, Cecilia and I scored significantly worse than we had the night before.
Hooman – who is used to being on-call and responding to patients – did not see much of a dip in his score, while Sylvie’s actually improved.
Sylvie said: “Although I feel a bit fuzzy this morning, maybe I’ve just got used to functioning on very little sleep; I have to be on as soon as my kids wake up, so it’s normal for me.”
I have long known that I don’t function well when sleep deprived, so it was no surprise that my cognitive scores dipped dramatically in the morning.
Indeed, one of the goals of the study is to discover whether certain groups — like parents and shift workers — experience the same cognitive impairments many of us do when sleep deprived.
But while Owen’s study will show us sleep deprivation’s cognitive effects on different groups, it isn’t looking at the health impact. Lack of sleep is linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety. So even if you join the study and nail the tests on four hours sleep, you might still want to aim for a healthier 7 – 9 hours whenever you can, as sleep experts recommend.