The Cellular Reason We Feel Groggy Without Enough Sleep

The feeling you get when you don’t get enough sleep on the most comfortable mattress can haunt you for the rest of the day. You know the feeling: groggy, sore, and irritable. Now a new study shows why you feel that way, and big surprise, it’s happening on a cellular level.


Researchers at UCLA have done the most complete brain studies of sleep-deprived patients to date, which offered up some tantalizing clues into why our brain’s feel like they’re running on empty when you haven’t been getting enough time in your most comfortable bed. The study looked at the activity of brain cells in sleep-deprived patients.

They saw that the cells’ activity slowed as the night wore on. This decline was mirrored in the patients’ performance of cognitive tasks that the researchers had set up expressly for the test. The research concluded that these sleep-deprived brains actually behaved in a similar way to test subjects who were impaired by alcohol use.

A Sleep Study For Epilepsy

The twelve patients in the study were all epileptics, who were scheduled for surgery the next morning. In order to induce seizures for their brain scans, they were kept up overnight, which left the researchers with a unique opportunity: They could observe the progression of the brain cells over the course of the evening, administering cognitive tests along the way to see how the patient’s brains responded over time.

As the night wore on, and the patients were kept from their most comfortable mattress, their brains reacted slower in response to cognitive tasks — and when they did respond, their activity was sloppier than when they were operating with a full eight hours of sleep. The firing of their synapses was weaker and less accurate than on the previous testing. This was in direct correlation to their results on the cognitive tests, which also suffered as they went along.

Brains Sleep Whether We Want Them to or Not

It seems that not only do our bodies crave a most comfortable mattress, but our brains also do as well. Even when the patients were kept awake, certain areas of their brain still took catnaps — that’s while the patients were still conscious. It’s a phenomenon that was previously undiagnosed by sleep scientists but could lead to some big ideas.

“Slow, sleep-like waves disrupted the patients’ brain activity and performance of tasks,” said scientist Itzhak Fried. “This 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.”

This new information could lead to very real changes in policy. No, the government won’t make it mandatory for you to spend more hours in the day on your most comfortable mattress, but they could check your brain after an accident to see if you had enough sleep before driving. Take, for instance, a pedestrian stepping out in front of the car of a sleep-deprived individual.

“The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s overtired brain,” said Fried. “It takes longer for his brain to register what he’s perceiving.”

That’s why it’s so important to get at least eight hours of sleep an evening. Leave your brain refreshed, sharp, and ready to go. Your coworkers, your brain cells, and other drivers on the road will thank you.

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