The study participants were then asked to categorize images as fast as they can.
According to The Independent, 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 leads to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us".
How was the study carried out?
For the study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers examined 12 patients who suffer from epilepsy and had electrodes implanted in their brains to pinpoint the origins of their seizures prior to surgery.
The scientists recorded the neuron activity in the medial temporal lobe of the brain while 12 people completed a facial recognition test, both before and after a full night without sleep.
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Unsurprisingly, as people got more exhausted, they struggled more with the task.
"We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity", explains lead study author Dr. Yuval Nir. Fried and his colleagues believe that disruption leads to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.
The neurons unlike regularly responded very slowly and appeared to be very weak. Electrodes gave them a sense of what was happening in the increasingly exhausted brain, and the researchers discovered that parts would essentially shut down and try to "sleep", impairing function.
Ginny Smith, presenter of an event called Mastering Memory at the Cheltenham Science Festival, said we need to focus less on recalling memories than storing them to begin with.
The scans suggested a lack of sleep was interfering with the neurons' ability to translate what was being seen into coherent thoughts, in the same way that a exhausted driver takes a moment to react to a pedestrian stepping out into the road.
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Fried warned that driving especially is unsafe when a person is sleep deprived and that is evident from this study. "The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's overtired brain", he explains in a UCLA release. It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving'.
The researchers also discovered that slower brain waves accompanied sluggish cellular activity in the temporal lobe and other parts of the brain. "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", said Fried.
What have older studies found?
Sleep deprivation is associated with long term impact in humans leading to hypertension, diabetes, heart attacks, obesity, depression etc.
Research suggests that brain cells fail to communicate with each other properly when a person is exhausted, affecting memory and visual perception.
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When they were sleep-deprived, the participants had slower brain activity and completed the task less accurately.