The Unexpected Way Sleep Deprivation Messes With the Brain

A new UC Berkley study reveals a shocking effect of sleep deprivation. 

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Thanks to their busy schedules, teens comprise a significant chunk of the sleep-deprived U.S. population. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents get 8-10 hours of shut-eye each night, but only 15 percent of teens say they actually sleep for 8.5 hours on schools nights.

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrates that this lack of slumber has far-reaching implications.   

Researchers from the University of California, Berkley, asked a group of 18 young adults to identify 70 facial expressions ranging from friendly to threatening. The group completed the task once after a full night of sleep, and once after pulling an all-nighter.

Brain scans and heart rate monitors tracked participants and revealed that the group could not discern between friendly and threatening faces when sleep deprived. They often mistook friendly and neutral expressions for threatening ones—presumably due to the sleep-starved body’s hampered ability to sense the brain’s distress signals.

So what? Who cares whether a sleepy person can decipher someone else’s expressions? Well, picture your moody, tired teen picking a fight with someone based on a false assumption that the other person posed a threat.

Matthew Walker, lead study author and professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, claims that an inadequate amount of sleep can cause sloppy, muddled connections between the body and the brain. Walker says,

“Recognizing the emotional expressions of someone else changes everything about whether or not you decide to interact with them, and in return, whether they interact with you. These findings are especially worrying considering that two-thirds of people in the developed nations fail to get sufficient sleep.”

To wake up teens to the importance of sleep, encourage them to read our personal health feature, “When Sleep Becomes a Nightmare.” Then, they can employ these five tips to achieve the ultimate snooze.