When you’re drowsy, you may feel like your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders (it takes you longer to do work, you forget details, you aren’t as enthusiastic about playing tea party).
But you’re still awake, right?
Findings this week in the journal Nature tell us that may not actually be the case. When we’re sleep deprived, it may actually be possible for parts of the brain to take a nap while our eyes are wide open and we (and the rest of the family) think we’re fully conscious.
A little unsettling, since scientists say it’s in random order that brain cells could fall asleep at the wheel while we’re going about our day. Here’s what might be happening in your mind after a sleepless night:
The team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison used rats (whose sleep-wake brain patterns are highly conserved and similar to humans). They kept the rats up for four hours past their bedtimes, and with electrodes implanted their brains and EEGs machines, they monitored brain activity and behavior. The rats looked normal and went about their usual eating and playing business. But meanwhile, all over the cortex, varying neurons went to sleep (showing electrical activity characteristic of deep, non-REM sleep).
The longer the rats were up, the more napping their brains cells did – and in seemingly random patterns. Meanwhile, the rats got worse and worse at performing a certain task that required coordination and cognitive power.
It’s a finding that challenges the long-held notion that there is a clear divide between sleep and awake and that there is one control center or ON/OFF switch. Instead it looks like sleep could start in localized regions of the brain and spread out over the cortex.
As parents, we’re no strangers to sleep deprivation. In fact, I’ve had a particularly bad string of sleepless nights this past week and the idea that neurons are just shutting down throughout my brain while I’m going about my day sounds just about right.
How about you — do you feel like parts of your brain turn off when you’re really sleepy?
Breastfeeding or Bottle feeding: Moms are equally sleep deprived