All it takes is one night of tossing and turning to make the brain unstable, according to a new study from an international coalition of researchers.
Researchers said the sudden shutdowns in the brain that result from sleep deprivation could lead to potentially dangerous mistakes or accidents.
"The main finding is that the brain of the sleep-deprived individual is working normally sometimes but intermittently suffers from something akin to power failure," Harvard University's Dr. Clifford Saper, an expert unaffiliated with the study, told the Journal of Neuroscience, which published the study in its May 21 issue.
The study was performed collaboratively by researchers at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.
In it, 24 adults were asked to perform simple tasks involving visual attention. Participants performed the tasks when they were well-rested and when they had missed a night's sleep.
Using MRI, the researchers found significant, momentary lapses in several areas of the brains of people who were sleep-deprived.
"To my knowledge, this is one of the first studies to look carefully at brain imaging during lapses of consciousness after sleep deprivation, the equivalent of ‘blanking out,’" said Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, at Stanford University, who was not involved in the study.