New Research on Sleep Deprivation Has 'Startling' Implications

17 Jan, 2020 Nancy Grover


East Lansing, MI ( – Sleep deprived workers can cost their employers a bundle, if precautions aren’t taken. A new study suggests the problem is much worse than previously thought.

While simpler tasks may be done on auto-pilot,  it is the more complex functions that can be dramatically impacted. What is specifically affected by the lack of sleep is placekeeping – the ability to perform a set of steps or subtasks in a particular order without omissions or repetitions.

“Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling,” said Kimberly Fenn, professor of psychology and director of the Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab. “Sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do, and simply can’t trust that they won’t make costly errors. Oftentimes – like when behind the wheel of a car – these errors can have tragic consequences.”

The study built on previous research by the authors that looked at the effect of lack of sleep on a person’s ability to follow a procedure and maintain attention. Their findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The Study

A total of 138 undergraduates at Michigan State University participated in the overnight assessment. All were given cognitive tasks in the evening to measure their reaction times to a stimulus along with their ability to maintain their place in a series of steps without missing or repeating any – even after sporadic interruptions.

The group was then split into two, with one told to sleep and the rest kept awake all night. All participants were then given the same cognitive tasks in the morning.

“After being interrupted there was a 15% error rate in the evening and we saw that the error rate spiked to about 30% for the sleep-deprived group the following morning,” said Michelle Stepan, a MSU doctoral candidate and co-author.  “The rested participants’ morning scores were similar to the night before.”

The results indicate that sleep deprivation causes more than just lapses in attention. Instead, it may impair a range of higher-order cognitive processes.

“Our findings debunk a common theory that suggests that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation,” Stepan continued. “Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals. But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

The researchers say their results should serve to alert people – as well as employers – to the significance of sleep deprivation on one’s ability to undertake complicated tasks. Interventions that benefit attention may have limited effectiveness. Instead, they say different or multiple interventions may be necessary.

“For example, our results suggest that an intervention that benefits attention, such as caffeine may not reduce costly errors in procedural performance that have been linked to total sleep deprivation,” they said.


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    About The Author

    • Nancy Grover

      Nancy Grover is a freelance writer having recently retired as the Director, Media Services for She comes to our company with more than 35 years as a broadcast journalist and communications consultant. Grover’s specialties include insurance, workers’ compensation, financial services, substance abuse, healthcare and disability. For 12 years she served as the Program Chair of the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. A journalism/speech graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, Grover also holds an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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