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23Sep/10

Yaakov Stern on sleep deprivation

Here's a really interesting video on sleep deprivation as explained by Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Stern is interested in investigating the interconnected nature of the brain, explaining activity and behavior by looking at how different regions of the brain communicate with one another and send information.

Everybody knows that sleep deprivation can often lead to an inability to perform daily tasks, especially mentally-demanding ones, but what kinds of processes in the brain might account for this difference in behavior?

Dr. Stern investigated this question by looking at the activity within different networks in the brain.  He recorded brain activity in a group of participants, then recorded again after they had been sleep deprived.  Interestingly, there were a few circuits that showed significantly decreased activity after sleep deprivation, and this activity correlated strongly with a decrease in performance.  Such a finding suggests that these networks might be the underpinnings of the effects that sleep deprivation has on brain and behavior.

However, he didn't stop there.  In order to answer this question more thoroughly, Dr. Stern applied a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to artificially stimulate these areas of the brain in sleep-deprived individuals.  Amazingly, he found that applying stimulation to the areas most affected by sleep deprivation caused a significant increase in behavioral performance on cognitive tasks, relative to those who got no stimulation.  Furthermore, the subjects that showed the sharpest reduction in activity after sleep deprivation benefited the most from this TMS treatment.  Such a finding is a rare correlation between behavior and neural activity, and it suggests a promising future for research into these neural networks.

There are a number of questions that one might ask surrounding this issue - whether other kinds of activities (such as drug use or hunger) affect these areas as well, whether we can pharmacologically increase the activity in these areas of the brain, or whether we can enact long-term changes in some other manner.  However, before embarking on these scientific inquiries, I think it best that we make sure to get a good night's sleep.

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