Watching Your Brain Shut Down


by Tim Moran

It is late.

I should be sleeping, or at least reading some gothic fiction preparatory to falling asleep. But I am writing. I am writing this blog about what happens when you don't sleep.

Working late and becoming somewhat sleep deprived--what kind of effect does it have on you and me and our work? Researchers affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and PERCRO Laboratory, in Italy, have found that lack of sleep is tantamount to mental impairment, and it seriously affects both cognitive and motor skills.

According to the researchers: ". . . while both the EEG and behavior indicate wakefulness [in rats], local populations of neurons in the cortex may be falling asleep, with negative consequences for performance." In other words, small areas of the brain go to sleep even though, for all practical purposes, the brain--and the rat to which it is attached--is awake.

They talk about how neurons in the brain, during sleep deprivation, switch between "on" periods, firing as in the awake brain, and "off" periods, when they stop firing altogether. Sounds a bit like the binary workings of a computer to me, but, then again, I am a bit tired; maybe this is what happens when your laptop goes into hibernation. (Which reminds me that there are 10 kinds of people in the world: Those who understand the binary system and those who don't.)

It also reminds me that this is not the first time we've encountered rat brains in this space. A while back I wrote about cyborg rats, with a scientist using rat brain cells to control a robot.

But I digress. Or do I? Wait! I just felt a couple of neurons switch to "off," which made me forget where I was going with this. "On." I remember: While we all like to do as much as we can and feel something akin to mental toughness as we go that extra mile late into the night, it might not be worth it, for the work we produce will not necessarily be up to snuff. The sleepy rats had trouble simply reaching for a sugar pellet--how do you think they'd do at blogging?