Sleep Loss Impairs Decision-Making

Summary: A new study highlights the significant impact of sleep deprivation on decision-making processes. The research revealed that a single night without sleep dampens neural responses to decision outcomes, affecting both positive and negative emotional reactions.

This study, which involved 56 healthy adults, found that sleep deprivation disrupts the brain’s response to risk-taking, potentially altering risk perception. These findings underscore the importance of adequate sleep, especially for professionals in high-stress roles like politicians and first responders, and suggest the need for specialized training or fatigue risk management in such fields.

Key Facts:

  1. A single night of sleep deprivation significantly decreases brain activation related to win and loss outcomes during decision-making.
  2. This impact of sleep loss affects both positive and negative emotional responses, altering risk perception.
  3. The study’s findings emphasize the critical role of adequate sleep in maintaining effective decision-making abilities, particularly in high-stress professions.

Source: University of Ottawa

Research gives insight into importance of sleep on cognitive performance and emotional well-being to those who find themselves under stress.

Politicians, military generals and first responders are just some high-stress positions which should avoid taking important decisions after a night without sleep, new research from the University of Ottawa indicates.

This shows a woman sleeping.
In other words, people tend to exhibit reduced positive emotions in response to winning outcomes and diminished negative emotions when faced with losses after pulling an all-nighter compared to their well-rested baseline condition. Credit: Neuroscience News

We all understand the power of sleep and the vital role it plays in human health, cognitive performance and in regulating our emotional well-being. Numerous studies into a lack of sleep have shown drops in neurocognitive functions, particularly vigilant attention, motor responses, inhibition control, and working memory. Despite this, sleep loss continues to challenge public health and affect people of all ages.

Sleep and risky decision-making

With little insight into the impact of a lack of sleep on risky decision-making at the neuroimaging level, researchers from the University of Ottawa and the University of Pennsylvania found a 24-hour period of sleep deprivation significantly impacted individuals’ decision-making processes by dampening neural responses to the outcomes of their choices.

In other words, people tend to exhibit reduced positive emotions in response to winning outcomes and diminished negative emotions when faced with losses after pulling an all-nighter compared to their well-rested baseline condition.

“Common sense does dictate if people incur sleep loss, sleep disturbance or a sleep disorder that their cognitive function will be impacted, their attention and efficiency will decrease. But there is an emotional impact, too,” says Zhuo Fang, a Data Scientist in the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

“If you experience even just one night of sleep deprivation, there will be an impact, even on a neural level. So, we wanted to combine brain imaging and behaviour to see that impact,” adds Fang, who is affiliated with uOttawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute and The Royal.

The study, which evaluated the impact of one night of total sleep deprivation on 56 healthy adults, found:

  • A single night of total sleep loss significantly decreased the brain activation to win and loss outcomes, suggesting that acute sleep loss can have a dampening effect on neural responses to decision outcomes during risk-taking.
  • Total sleep deprivation had the detrimental effect by disrupting the relationship between neural response and individual’s risk-taking behavior, which might be related to the altered perception for risk-taking.

While numerous studies have previously illustrated the wide-ranging effects of sleep deprivation on various brain and cognitive functions, including attention processing, memory consolidation, and learning, this study addresses the specific impact of sleep loss on decision-making.

“These results underscore the importance of maintaining adequate sleep and how individuals should refrain from making important decisions when experiencing chronic or acute sleep deprivation,” says Fang, who co-first authored the study with Tianxin Mao of the University of Pennsylvania alongside corresponding author Hengyi Rao.

“In specific professions where decision-makers are required to operate under accumulated sleep loss, specialized training or fatigue risk management might be necessary to enable them to handle such situations effectively.”

About this decision-making and sleep research news

Author: Paul Logothetis
Source: University of Ottawa
Contact: Paul Logothetis – University of Ottawa
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Sleep deprivation attenuates neural responses to outcomes from risky decision-making” by Zhuo Fang et al. Psychophysiology


Sleep deprivation attenuates neural responses to outcomes from risky decision-making

Sleep loss impacts a broad range of brain and cognitive functions. However, how sleep deprivation affects risky decision-making remains inconclusive.

This study used functional MRI to examine the impact of one night of total sleep deprivation (TSD) on risky decision-making behavior and the underlying brain responses in healthy adults.

In this study, we analyzed data from N = 56 participants in a strictly controlled 5-day and 4-night in-laboratory study using a modified Balloon Analogue Risk Task. Participants completed two scan sessions in counter-balanced order, including one scan during rested wakefulness (RW) and another scan after one night of TSD. Results showed no differences in participants’ risk-taking propensity and risk-induced activation between RW and TSD.

However, participants showed significantly reduced neural activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula for loss outcomes, and in bilateral putamen for win outcomes during TSD compared with RW. Moreover, risk-induced activation in the insula negatively correlated with participants’ risk-taking propensity during RW, while no such correlations were observed after TSD.

These findings suggest that sleep loss may impact risky decision-making by attenuating neural responses to decision outcomes and impairing brain-behavior associations.

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