How Sleep Deprivation Is a Brain Drain

by | Last updated May 17, 2022

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Having trouble getting a good night of sleep? If so, you’re not the only one. Sleep deprivation is a common issue that impacts millions of Americans.

About one in three of U.S. adults report not getting a sufficient amount of sleep — equivalent to at least 7 hours each night — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those figures may be even more unsettling right now, considering the effect worldwide health concerns are having on the mental and physical well being of many Americans.

For some people, sleep loss is sometimes worn as a badge of honor — a sign they’re burning the candle at both ends and getting things done. But this fails to recognize how detrimental sleep deprivation can be.

A person’s “sleep debt,” or the total amount of rest they’ve lost due to poor sleep, can come back to hurt them in several ways. In particular, sleep deprivation can negatively affect a person’s short-term memory, ability to concentrate, and their mood.

Countless parents have shared the old axiom: make sure you get a good night of sleep before taking a big test. That adage holds true, no matter at what age. The brain needs quality sleep to function at its best.

By looking at how sleep deprivation influences our daily performance, it becomes apparent how important it is to remedy a severe lack of sleep.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

First, it’s important to define just exactly what sleep deprivation is and what causes it.

Simply put, sleep deprivation is when someone isn’t getting enough sleep. (For most adults, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night is recommended.) It’s not a specific disease, but instead tends to be the result of other underlying health issues or circumstances. These include stresses brought on by work, family, or unforeseen life obstacles that lead to anxiety and can stand in the way of proper rest.

Sleep deprivation falls into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute sleep deprivation is a short-term interruption in someone’s sleep pattern that leads to poor sleep. This can happen when a person looks to stay awake all night cramming for a big presentation or exam, for example.

On the other hand, chronic sleep deprivation is when a person suffers from inadequate sleep for a prolonged period of time, either weeks, months or even years.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Both acute and chronic sleep deprivation can lead to mental health repercussions. And researchers have found it doesn’t take long for this sleep problem to rear its ugly head.

Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health

Lack of sleep can immediately impact a person’s anxiety levels. In fact, all it takes is one night of poor sleep to make stressful situations harder to deal with. According to a team of UC Berkeley scientists last year, one sleepless night can trigger a 30% spike in anxiety levels.

That’s because our ability to deal with stress depends on a full night of sleep. Deep sleep, or non-rapid eye movement slow-wave sleep, allows neural pathways to synchronize and work efficiently. Without it, our brains are ill-prepared to deal with stressful situations and anxiety ends up being amplified.

As the UC Berkeley researchers found, brain scans showed a night of no sleep leads to a shutdown of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps manage anxiety. At the same time, the brain’s emotional regulators were overworked. The result is people become overly irritable, stressed, and unable to properly navigate their emotions on little sleep.

Check out this recent article, What Happens to My Brain When I’m Sleep Deprived for more information about the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain.

Sleep Deprivation Leads to Memory Loss and Poor Concentration

If you’re wondering, does sleep deprivation cause memory loss, the answer is simply – yes. Sleep plays a key role in memory recall. It also affects our ability to concentrate.

Brain waves responsible for storing memories are produced during sleep. These brain waves help transfer memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is where long term memories are stored. If memories never reach the prefrontal cortex and are stuck in the hippocampus, long-term memories aren’t formed. This leads to forgetfulness.

A recent study from Michigan State University, looking at 138 participants, drove home the importance of sleep for thinking and concentration. The study found that sleep deprived people make twice as many placekeeping errors and have three times as many attention lapses as those who get a full amount of sleep. (The researchers measured placekeeping as a person’s ability to follow multiple steps to complete a task.)

The study asked participants to take two sets of sleep assessment tests; before the first set of tests, all participants had at least 6 hours of sleep the night before. One test looked at how fast they reacted to stimulus, and the second test looked at their placekeeping ability, or ability to follow a sequence of steps.

After the initial test, 77 participants were kept awake all night. The remaining 61 were allowed to go home and get ample sleep.

The next day, those who didn’t get great sleep performed much worse on their cognitive tests. The error rate on the placekeeping test, for example, jumped from 15% to 30% for those who did not get enough rest. For those who got at least 6 hours of sleep the next night, their error rate was essentially unchanged.

Those who didn’t get enough sleep also showed a severe downturn in their ability to quickly respond to stimulus — indicating their ability to concentrate was also hampered.

If you’re looking for ways to improve your memory and ability to focus, check out How To Use Your Sleep Cycle For Your Best Sleep to avoid many of the negative effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep Deprivation Leads to More Accidents

According to one of the lead MSU researchers, their study showed “sleep deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do,” whether it’s driving cars or using heavy machinery. The brain’s neurons simply don’t fire on all cylinders when someone is sleep deprived — and this puts them at an increased risk of getting hurt.

Another study, looking at chronic sleep deprivation by following 7,000 workers across a variety of industries for a year, highlighted this. The results showed a strong link between sleep loss and workplace accidents, with sleep deprived people being 70% more likely to be involved in an accident than those getting sufficient sleep.

This built on previous research, including one study that looked at 50,000 workers over a two-decade sample and found those who suffered from disturbed sleep were twice as likely to die in a work-related accident. The brain’s reaction time is curbed by poor sleep, leading sleep deprived people to put themselves and others at greater risk of injury.

Identifying Sleep Deprivation

The cognitive impact of sleep loss is clear: a person is more forgetful, less able to concentrate, and more accident prone when they’re running on insufficient sleep. Their emotional stability and ability to handle stress are also negatively affected by poor sleep.

The telltale sign someone is suffering from sleep deprivation is that they feel sleepy during the day. But there are more indicators to keep your eye on.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

  • Diminished sex drive
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Memory issues
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation

Need help falling asleep or staying asleep? Here are our Top 5 Tips To Help You Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep.

Sleep Deprivation and Sleep Disorders

Sleep deprivation is often a red flag that a serious sleep disorder, like insomnia or sleep apnea, has gone undiagnosed.

People with obstructive sleep apnea experience either a partially blocked or completely blocked airway during sleep. The blockage reduces oxygen levels in the body and prevents deep restful sleep. This leads to chronic sleep deprivation, despite an adequate number of hours slept.

If you wake feeling tired and groggy, regardless of how long you slept, and exhibit signs of sleep deprivation throughout the day, you may have an underlying sleep disorder like sleep apnea.

A sleep doctor may recommend an overnight sleep study to evaluate sleep patterns, or a home sleep apnea test to determine whether a sleep disorder is causing your sleep deprivation.

If you’re concerned about sleep deprivation, contact Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today to book an appointment. You can also take our sleep quiz to help you determine if sleep apnea is contributing to your sleep deprivation.


Simon, B., et al. (2020). Overanxious and underslept. Nature Human Behaviour 4: 100-110. Retrieved on May 1, 2020 from:

Stepan, M., et al. (2020). Effects of total sleep deprivation on procedural placekeeping: more than just lapses of attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology 149(4): 800-806. Retrieved on May 1, 2020 from:

Swaen, G., et al. (2003). Fatigue as a risk factor for being injured in an occupational accident: results from the Maastricht cohort study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 60(1): 88-92. Retrieved on May 1, 2020 from:

Akerstedt, T., et al. (2002). A prospective study of fatal occupational accidents — relationship to sleep difficulties and occupational factors. Journal of Sleep Research 11(1): 69-71. Retrieved on May 1, 2020 from:

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