Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Not getting enough sleep?
Sleep deprivation disrupts brain cells that can lead to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception, including causing vehicle accidents, according to a study led by UCLA's Dr. Itzhak Fried.
"You have to remember not only you are sleep deprived but the brain is sleep deprived," said Fried, the study's senior author, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Tel Aviv University, in a video released by UCLA Health.
The research, published Monday in Nature Medicine, is the first to reveal how sleep deprivation disrupts brain cells.
"We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly," Fried said. "This leads to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us."
Fried said not getting enough sleep can be as dangerous as drinking too much.
"Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much," Fried said. "Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers."
In previous studies, he noted sleep deprivation was linked to a heightened risk for depression, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke.
In the new study, an international team of scientists studied 12 people preparing to undergo surgery at UCLA for epilepsy, which can be provoked because of lack of sleep.
Electrodes were implanted in their brains to find the origin of their seizures before surgery.
Each participant was asked to categorize images as quickly as possible. The electrodes recorded the firing of roughly 1,500 brain cells from all the patients. The scientists focused on neurons in the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.
As the patients grew sleepier, it became more difficult to perform the task. Brain cells also slowed down.
"We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity," said lead author Yuval Nir of Tel Aviv University. "Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual."
This situation can occur when a sleep-deprived driver notices a pedestrian stepping in front of his car.
"The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's overtired brain," Fried said. "It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving."
In the study, researchers noticed portions of the brain operated differently.
"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."
The research staff plans to explore the benefits of sleep and why the brain misfunctions because of the lack of sleep.