A Real Brain Drain: Sleep Deprivation and Its Effects on The Brain

by | Last updated Dec 12, 2023

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How often do you wake up feeling tired and worn out, even after a full night’s sleep? Everyone has felt the effects of lost sleep and sleep deprivation at some point, leaving many to wonder about its lasting impacts and potential solutions.

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. However, we cannot stress enough that this is not a good thing

Your sleep debt— or the total amount of rest you’ve lost due to poor sleep— can come back to haunt you in several ways. Sleep debt, like everything else, comes with a cost. Specifically, sleep deprivation can negatively affect your mood and cause cognitive impairment. 

Put simply, your brain needs quality sleep. When looking into how sleep deprivation influences your daily performance, it becomes clear how important it is to get a good night’s sleep. Excessive sleep deprivation may even make a rational and clear-thinking person behave differently than usual— or in some cases, act downright strange.

So let’s take a closer look at the types of sleep deprivation, how to identify sleep deprivation, as well as its effect on your brain.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation occurs when someone does not get enough sleep. 

How do you determine what’s not enough sleep? 

For most adults, 7 to 9 hours of sleep is needed every night, ideally good quality sleep.

Sleep deprivation itself is not a sleep disorder, but may be a symptom of a sleep disorder, and may even point to other underlying health issues or circumstances. This can include stresses brought on by work, family, or unforeseen life obstacles that can create anxiety and prevent proper rest.

There are two main types of sleep deprivation: acute sleep deprivation, and chronic sleep deprivation. 

Acute sleep deprivation occurs when a short-term interruption in someone’s sleep pattern leads to poor sleep. For example, when someone stays awake all night cramming for a big test or stays up too late binging a favorite TV show.

Chronic sleep deprivation occurs when a person suffers from inadequate sleep for a prolonged period— weeks, months, or even years.

Identifying Sleep Deprivation

The cognitive impact of sleep loss is clear— when you’re running on insufficient sleep, you are more forgetful, less able to concentrate, and more accident-prone. Your emotional stability and ability to handle stress are also negatively affected by poor sleep. However, the telltale sign that you’re suffering from sleep deprivation is that familiar feeling of exhaustion and fatigue that can have a negative impact on your day-to-day routine. 

But these aren’t the only symptoms of sleep deprivation that you need to be aware of.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Even if you normally sleep well, the occasional sleepless night can be just impossible to avoid. Common— and often familiar— symptoms of sleep deprivation can include:

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

Are you personally experiencing any of these symptoms? 

It’s important to acknowledge that even in the short term, the symptoms of sleep deprivation can have several undesirable or potentially dangerous effects on your body and your brain. 

These effects not only impact your health long-term, but they can contribute to challenges that affect your quality of life on a daily basis. 

To better understand how the harmful effects of sleep deprivation may be impacting your quality of life, we’ve included several common ways you may be affected below. 

The Harmful Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Although we’re specifically addressing sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain, the importance of understanding additional ways insufficient sleep has a lasting impact on your health and wellness cannot be understated. When sleep-deprived, your risk of health problems like heart attack, stroke, and diabetes increases. Not only that, but your immune system becomes weaker, making you more susceptible to illness.

In addition to the physical harm described above, long-term sleep deprivation can cause a myriad of problems in your brain, such as memory loss and mental health disorders.

You can jump to each section below:
Mental Health | Anxiety | Rational Thinking | Memory Loss | More Accidents | Sleep Disorders

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Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health

Both acute and chronic sleep deprivation can lead to potentially serious mental health repercussions— and research has found it doesn’t take long for this sleep disturbance to affect how you feel. This is something especially important to consider if you or a loved one is experiencing anxiety or depression. 

Sleep loss (even short-term sleep loss) can immediately impact your anxiety levels. All it takes is one night of poor sleep to make stressful situations harder to deal with. 

Anxiety and Sleep Deprivation

According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley scientists, a single sleepless night can trigger a 30 percent spike in anxiety levels. This is because your ability to deal with stress depends on a full night of restful sleep.

Deep sleep, or non-rapid eye movement slow-wave sleep, allows your neural pathways to synchronize and work efficiently. Without this deep sleep, your brain is ill-prepared to deal with stressful situations, and anxiety becomes amplified.

 Brain scans conducted by UC Berkeley researchers showed one sleepless night leads to a shutdown of the medial prefrontal cortex— 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 with little to no sleep.

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Sleep Deprivation and Rational Thinking

If you’ve ever spent time with parents of a newborn, an overworked graduate student, or soldiers in a combat zone you’ve likely been in the presence of someone suffering from sleep deprivation. 

Perhaps you are or have been that sleep-deprived parent, soldier, or student. 

Either way, you’ve most likely witnessed what often seems like an overly emotional response to another person or an external situation. 

UC Berkeley Study Investigates How Sleep Impacts Emotional Response

Anecdotally there are many examples supporting the theory that sleep deprivation can wreak havoc with our emotions. A brain imaging study by UC Berkeley, published in Current Biology, investigated what actually happens to the emotional brain without sleep. 

In what was the first neural investigation of the connection between sleep and the emotional brain, 26 healthy participants were separated into two groups. 

The control group was able to sleep normally, while the other was forced to stay awake for two days and one night, essentially 35 hours straight.

At the end of the study’s second day, the researchers showed the participants one hundred images. When viewing the images, the study participants were scanned by an MRI machine. The participants were shown neutral images that gradually became more negative, including images of mutilated bodies and other gory images.

Once the study was complete, researchers compared the data from the sleep-deprived brains against the data from the control group.

Sleep Deprivation Overstimulates the Amygdala, the Emotional Center of the Brain

When compared, the study demonstrated that sleep-deprived participants’ amygdala became hyperactive. Participants who received a full night of sleep showed normal amygdala activity. In fact, the emotional centers of the brain were over 60 percent more reactive in the sleep-deprived brains. 

University of Berkeley
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University of Berkeley

How Sleep Deprivation Overrides Rational Thinking

The amygdala— also known as the fear center of the brain— alerts the body to protect itself during times of danger. As mentioned in the study examining sleep and anxiety, without sleep, the amygdala goes into overdrive, shutting down the prefrontal cortex. 

Your prefrontal cortex is key to decision-making, reasoning, impulse control, and also alerts your brain as to whether something is “real”. Essentially, your prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain in charge of your ability to think rationally.  

When the prefrontal cortex is overridden, logic and reasoning become severely hampered. 

In short, when people lack sufficient sleep, judgment becomes impaired, emotions run out of control and the ability to think rationally is severely impacted. This is just one more reason to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep. 

Related: 5 Lifestyle Changes to Get 7-9 Hours of Quality Sleep

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Sleep Deprivation Leads to Memory Loss and Poor Concentration

A study from Michigan State University emphasized the importance of a good night’s sleep for clear thinking and concentration. Observing 138 participants, the study found that sleep-deprived people make twice as many placekeeping errors during tests, and have three times as many attention lapses as those who get a full amount of sleep.

In addition to impairing rational thought and good judgment, sleep deprivation also causes memory loss. 

In fact, your sleep plays a key role in memory creation and recall. This is because the brain waves responsible for storing memories are produced during sleep. These brain waves help transfer memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex-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 can lead to forgetfulness. Sleep also affects your ability to concentrate.

The MSU study also 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 observed how fast they reacted to stimulus, and the second test looked at their placekeeping ability during testing. 

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

The next day, those who got insufficient sleep performed much worse on their cognitive tests. For example, the error rate on the placekeeping test jumped from 15 to 30 percent for those who did not get enough rest. For those who got at least 6 hours of sleep the following 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.

Related: How To Use Your Sleep Cycle For Your Best Sleep

Sleep Deprivation Can Lead to More Accidents

Following the completion of the above study, one of the MSU researchers insisted that sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in everything that they do, especially if driving cars or using heavy machinery. This is because your brain’s neurons simply don’t fire on all cylinders when you are sleep-deprived — and this puts you at an increased risk of getting hurt or hurting someone else.

One study published by Occupational and Environmental Medicine observed 7,000 workers across a variety of industries for a year to examine the effect chronic sleep deprivation had on them. The results showed a strong link between sleep loss and workplace accidents, with sleep-deprived people being 70 percent more likely to be involved in an accident than those getting sufficient sleep.

This built on previous research from the Journal of Sleep Research that observed 50,000 workers over a two-decade span. This study found that 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.

Even with the nightly recommended 7 to 9 hours, the effects of sleep deprivation can still pose a threat and may be a symptom of an underlying sleep disorder.

Sleep Deprivation and Underlying Sleep Disorders

If you wake up 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.

People with obstructive sleep apnea experience either a partially blocked or a completely blocked airway during sleep. This blockage creates pauses in your breathing, reducing oxygen levels in your body and preventing deep restful sleep. This leads to chronic sleep deprivation, even if you get enough hours of sleep each night.

If you think you’re at risk for sleep apnea but aren’t sure if you have the disorder, take our sleep apnea quiz. It can help you make better sense of your symptoms so you can discuss them with your doctor or a sleep specialist.

A sleep specialist may recommend an overnight sleep study to evaluate your sleep patterns or a home sleep apnea test to determine whether or not a sleep disorder is causing your sleep deprivation.

If you’re concerned about sleep deprivation, contact the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today to schedule a consultation. Getting adequate sleep should not be a challenge— contact us today to get back to the restful, healthy sleep you deserve.


Ben Simon, Eti, et al. “Overanxious and Underslept.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 4 Nov. 2019, www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0754-8.

Anwar, Yasmin. “Sleep Loss Linked to Psychiatric Disorders.” UC Berkeley News, UC Berkeley, 22 Oct. 2007, www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2007/10/22_sleeploss.shtml.

Stepan, Michelle E, et al. “Effects of Total Sleep Deprivation on Procedural Placekeeping: More than Just Lapses of Attention.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, psycnet.apa.org/buy/2019-70149-001.

Swaen, G M H, et al. “Fatigue as a Risk Factor for Being Injured in an Occupational Accident: Results from the Maastricht Cohort Study.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine, BMJ Group, June 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1765730/.Akerstedt, T, et al. “A Prospective Study of Fatal Occupational Accidents -— Relationship to Sleeping Difficulties and Occupational Factors.” Journal of Sleep Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11869429.

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