Being tired is like being drunk, study appears to confirm

Both things slow down your thinking and could contribute to memory loss and lack of concentration

Andrew Griffin
Monday 06 November 2017 16:59 GMT
Is this man drunk or just woken up? They might amount to the same thing
Is this man drunk or just woken up? They might amount to the same thing

Sleeping badly does similar things to your brain as drinking alcohol, according to a new study.

Like with drinking, exhausted neurons respond more slowly, take longer and send weaker signals, according to the new research.

The study could explain why being very tired feels a little like being drunk. And it might also explain why some of the symptoms are similar, like memory lapses and an ability to concentrate after a night of no sleep or lots of drinking.

Researchers tested 12 tired epileptic patients who had electrodes implanted into their brains to pinpoint the origin of their seizures.

Professor Itzhak Fried, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said: "We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly.

"This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.

"Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much. Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers."

The study participants were asked to stay awake all night to speed up the onset of an epileptic episode before undergoing surgery. Lack of sleep is known to trigger seizures in vulnerable individuals.

For the test, the patients had to categorise a variety of images as fast as possible while the implants recorded their brain activity.

Lack of sleep caused the neurons to respond to visual stimulus sluggishly, the scientists reported in the journal Nature Medicine. They also fired weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than normal.

The same effects were likely to occur when a sleepy motorist notices a pedestrian stepping into the road, said the researchers.

Co-author Dr Yuval Nir, from Tel Aviv University in Israel, said: "The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's over-tired brain. It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving."

The team also discovered "slow" brain waves similar to those that occur during sleep in tired regions of the brain. Brain waves are synchronised pulses of electrical activity generated by neurons.

"Slow sleep-like waves disrupted the patients' brain activity and performance of tasks," said Prof Fried. "This phenomenon suggests that select regions of the patients' brains were dozing, causing mental lapses, while the rest of the brain was awake and running as usual."

Additional reporting by Press Association

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