How Sleep Deprivation Affects Cognitive Functions

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Simply put, sleep deprivation occurs when an individual fails to get an appropriate amount of sleep according to their biological need. The amount of sleep required varies by person, but in general, adults need seven to eight hours and teenagers need about nine hours per night. In our busy world, many people fail to get enough sleep and suffer the consequences.

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According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep deprivation has many negative consequences both physiologically and psychologically including the increased risk of serious medical conditions; lack of motivation, attention, and competency; and poor performance (2008). In this paper, I will explore the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive functions, specifically from the cognitive and biological psychological perspectives.

Cognitive Perspective

In their article, Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Procedural Errors, Michelle Stepan, Kimberly Fenn, and Erik Altmann (2018) explore the cognitive effects that sleep deprivation has on procedural tasks that require memory. Stepan et al. note the proven effects that lack of sleep has on attention and vigilance but stress the need for more research on how sleep deprivation affects higher-order cognitive processes. The authors explain how their research is the largest known study on the impact of sleep deprivation on higher-order cognition. This study mainly focuses on how sleep deprivation affects memory and whether the effects are localized to cognitive deficits as a whole or solely memory processes. Acknowledging that sleep deprivation impacts ability and willingness, Stepan et al. hypothesize that deprivation most significantly affects memory maintenance above other cognitive processes.

In order to test this hypothesis, Stepan et al. selected 234 men and women Michigan State University undergraduates. The participants had no sleep or memory disorders, no morning or evening preference, and no major sleep disturbances. First, subjects completed a procedural task that consisted of a series of seven steps where subjects identified a different two-alternative forced-choice decision rule to apply to a randomly generated stimulus. The test provided no details about which step to do next, making the participants recall where they were in the sequence. While taking the test, the participant is interrupted every few trials for about 20 seconds. The participant then must continue the sequence with the right step and answer. In order to answer the question correctly, the participant must remember the last step completed before the interference. All participants completed the first part of the experiment together where they all took this same test one time. Then, they were randomly assigned to the control group who received a normal night of sleep and the experimental group who faced 24 hours of sleep deprivation before the second test. The participants took the same test again in the morning, and that was the conclusion of the experiment.

Results showed that sleep deprivation participants failed the second test at a higher rate than the participants who received sleep.

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