6 Things to Know about How Sleep Deprivation Affects Thinking & Memory

Sleep deprivation can impair memory
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Turns out, Mom may have been right about how important sleep is to your academic success in school, and perhaps in life, too.

Does Sleep Affect Cognitive Functioning?

In a word- yes.

The Research

Many research studies have been conducted on how sleep (or the lack thereof) impacts different areas of cognition, including memory, verbal fluency and calculation. Some of the studies even looked at the brain's structure and size, and noted how it responded to sleep deprivation.

Here's a summary of what science has found about the importance of sleep:

  • Even one night matters

Studies have shown that as little as one night of sleep deprivation can impact the speed of divergent thinking (the ability to think of several solutions to a dilemma) as well cause the prefrontal cortex of the brain to have to work harder to function. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that affects personality, emotion and complex thinking tasks such as planning.

  • Certain areas of your brain shrink

Long-term sleep disturbances have been correlated with brain atrophy (decreased cells-thus shrinkage- in the brain). Researchers found that the amount of gray matter in the brain was reduced with sleep deprivation. Another study looked specifically at how the volume of the hippocampus in the brain was impacted by sleep deprivation and found that it was smaller in people who chronically slept poorly.

  • Working memory is impaired

Working memory (the ability to remember, manipulate and apply information) has also been clearly connected to sleep deprivation. In one study, working memory was tested at four intervals throughout a night of sleep deprivation and was found to be impaired each time as compared to the working memory of those with undisturbed sleep.

Also, at the time where the participants had experienced the longest sleep deprivation, the working memory showed the most decline. 

  • Sustained attention is shortened

Sustained attention, or the ability to concentrate on something for an extended amount of time, was significantly affected in multiple research studies on sleep deprivation.

  • Visual short-term memory declines

The ability to recall what was seen shortly after viewing it (visual short-term memory) declined after sleep deprivation.

  • Prospective memory decreases

Prospective memory (remembering what you were planning to do in the future) has also been shown to be negatively affected by sleep loss.

What Else Does Research Say?

Interestingly, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation , vitamin E supplementation, and physical exercise were each shown to reverse some of the negative cognitive effects of sleep deprivation in separate studies.

(You might choose, however, to simply get a little more sleep.)


Behavioural Brain Research. 2012 Jan 1;226(1):205-10. The neuroprotective effect of vitamin E on chronic sleep deprivation-induced memory impairment: the role of oxidative stress. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21944940

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014 Apr 22;8:214. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00214. eCollection 2014. The effects of a single night of sleep deprivation on fluency and prefrontal cortex function during divergent thinking.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24795594

Journal of Clinical Neurology. 2012 Jun;8(2):130-8. The relationship between hippocampal volume and cognition in patients with chronic primary insomnia. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22787497

Journal of Sleep Research. 2014 Jun 6. Emotional working memory during sustained wakefulness. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24905752

Memory. 2014;22(6):679-86. Effects of sleep deprivation on prospective memory. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23885855

Neuroreport. 2014 Mar 26;25(5):320-3. Long-term total sleep deprivation reduces thalamic gray matter volume in healthy men. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24346259

PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45987. Effects of partial and acute total sleep deprivation on performance across cognitive domains, individuals and circadian phase.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23029352

Sleep. 2013 May 1;36(5):751-61. Regular exercise prevents sleep deprivation associated impairment of long-term memory and synaptic plasticity in the CA1 area of the hippocampus. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23633758

Sleep. 2013 Jun 1;36(6):857-71. Extended remediation of sleep deprived-induced working memory deficits using fMRI-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23729929

Sleep. 2013 Jun 1;36(6):849-56. Sleep deprivation accelerates delay-related loss of visual short-term memories without affecting precision. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23729928

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