Here’s Exactly What Happens To Your Brain When You Don’t Sleep

You might think that you’re getting enough sleep, but more likely you’re a couple snoozes short of a complete night’s rest. So, at the request of several organizations, the U.S. Institute of Medicine appointed a 14-person committee to study sleep habits and health. Shockingly, they found that up to 70 million Americans suffer from some sort of sleep disorder.

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Of course, it’s recommended that you get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Naturally, then, not getting enough sleep can have some pretty startling consequences, and we’re not just talking about yawning at inappropriate times at work.

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Indeed, the committee for the Institute of Medicine labeled the extent to which people suffer from sleep deprivation an “unmet public health problem.” But what are the consequences, and how do they manifest themselves?

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One of the strangest responses the brain has to a lack of sleep is to give you a false sense that its a good idea to take more risks with your money. Neuropsychologist Vinod Venkatraman, now in the department of marketing at Temple University, examined this weird link as part of his Ph.D. at Duke University and published the results in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2011.

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This weird side effect is due to increased activity in your prefrontal cortex, specifically in the part of your brain that handles rewards. At the same time, activity in the anterior insula, the part of your brain that deals with risk and punishment, decreases. In other words, you start to care less about losing money.

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And, of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abnormal brain responses to lack of sleep. Things get much worse and much weirder the more you look into the phenomenon.

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For instance, hallucinations can start occurring after a single all-nighter. So it’s the chaos of sleep deprivation that makes you think that, say, you turned off the stove when you removed the tea kettle – because you anticipated doing it – but in fact it’s still dangerously hot!

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Furthermore, cognitive psychologist Nadine Petrovsky of the University of Bonn wanted to know if healthy humans subjected to sleep deprivation could be induced into states of psychosis, similar to schizophrenia. Her ultimate goal was to move the research on antipsychotic drugs on rats into human models.

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Published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2014, her work showed that after just one night without sleep people really do go a little crazy. Certainly, she found that sleep deprived people were less likely to find pleasure in normally enjoyable activities, and they showed increased cognitive disorganization and perceptual distortion.

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What’s more, psychologist Lisa Maccari of the University of Rome published a study in 2010 that showed sleeplessness can really mess with the way we process emotions. Indeed, processing what people tell us when we haven’t slept can result in miscommunication and misunderstanding regardless of whether the message is positive, negative or neutral.

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Not sleeping also changes the way we read people’s emotional state from their face, especially if it’s just a neutral expression. Suffice it to say that everyone you look at has a resting bitch face, when you haven’t slept.

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Additionally, neuroscientist William Killgore of Harvard published work in the journal Neuroimage in 2013 that draws a connection between being tired during the day and obesity. Dieting and exercise are all well and good, he argued, but if you’re not getting enough sleep your brain can play with your perceived hunger needs as well.

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Participants in the study underwent MRI scans while being shown images of low- and high-calorie foods. They also answered the question “how often do you eat more than you intend to?” and completed a survey that asked what their chance of dozing would be in situations ranging from meetings to sitting in a car in traffic. The overall results showed that sleeplessness unfairly affects women.

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True, social stigmas may induce women to answer the over-eating question differently from men regardless of their sleep habits. But the study indicated that women who were sleepier in the day may also have a harder time regulating their food intake.

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And if all of that wasn’t bad enough, a lack of sleep can also have a detrimental effect on your ability to create lasting memories. It’s all down to your hippocampus, and the role it plays when your head hits the pillow at night.

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In simple terms, when you’re asleep your hippocampus replays memories, cementing them in your brain to draw upon later. If your sleep is interrupted, though, the hippocampus can’t fulfill it’s role, and your memories don’t get a chance to go into permanent storage. But there’s more bad news for your memory as well.

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Social behaviorist Steven Frenda of the University of California in Irvine concluded that a lack of sleep can also skew your memories. Indeed, the research showed that after one night of sleep deprivation subjects were far more likely to create so-called false memories.

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Oh, and it gets even worse. Research on mice has shown that consecutive all-nighters can actually cause irreversible brain damage. Since we have the same neural networks, this indicates that no amount of catch-up sleep is going to fix the damage you can do to parts of your brain.

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In fact, keeping mice sleep deprived for three days – by putting them in an environment with toys, and other already rested, mice – led to their inability to produce a protein that all mammal brains require for protecting certain neurons, ones which only work when awake. Those neurons happen to also play some pretty important functions in the human brain.

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Located in the brain stem, the neurons in question help people pay attention and shape our cognitive abilities. They also have some control over your moods, so damaging them could make you more prone to depression. Take that into consideration the next time you’re opting to pull an all-nighter…

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