Previous research has tied sleep deprivation to depression, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. Previous research has tied sleep deprivation to depression, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. Previous research has tied sleep deprivation to depression, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. (Photo: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock)

Science confirms: A sleep-deprived driver is just as dangerous as a drunk one

New study shows too little sleep influences the brain the same way too much alcohol does.

It happens to the best of us. We have a bad night's sleep – tossing and turning, worrying about important meetings we have the next day – and then in the morning we're operating in a fog. We can't find our keys, and when we do, we're often drifting off and daydreaming as we drive in to work.

If this scenario sounds at all familiar, then the results of a new study should come as no surprise: Being sleep-deprived behind the wheel is just as bad as being drunk.

"Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much," said the study's senior author Dr. Itzhak Fried, professor of neurosurgery at Tel Aviv University as well as the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers."

Added Fried: "We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly. This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us."

What's perhaps more fascinating is the subject group used for this study by Fried and his colleagues – an international team of scientists from the U.S., Israel and France. Epilepsy patients are usually asked to stay awake all night in the hospital so as to induce a seizure that the doctors can then study. A dozen such patients were examined in a Los Angeles hospital. While they were attempting to not doze off, they were shown a variety of images that they were asked to categorize. As expected, the more tired they got, the slower their brain was to react. The researchers also discovered that lack of sleep impacted certain areas of the brain more than others.

"We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity," said lead author Dr. Yuval Nir of Tel Aviv University. "Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual."

In future research, Fried and his colleagues plan to more deeply explore the benefits of sleep, and to unravel the mechanism responsible for the brain glitches that precede mental lapses.

Indeed, Fried is trying to find new and innovative ways to improve memory. In another study he just published, he reported that electrodes implanted in epilepsy patients to stimulate a section of the brain actually improved their performances on a facial-recognition task.

Fried has used this notion – prodding the brain with an electrode – to some surprising effect. In 2014, he performed brain surgery on Naomi Elishuv, formerly a violinist for the Lithuanian National Orchestra. She had a hand tremor that forced her to quit playing professionally.

So he poked and prodded her brain – while she was awake! – to determine the exact area of her brain that was causing the tremor. Once he did, he sewed her back and she was as good as new. As you can see in the video below, Dr. Fried actually implanted two electrodes in her brain while she was playing her instrument. She's now back to playing the violin tremor-free.

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