Sleep and cognition in adolescents

In our 24-hour society, it is not uncommon for someone to be chronically sleep deprived. This is especially true for those who require more sleep. Adolescents need for more sleep than older individuals, which is unfortunate considering teenagers are usually lacking sleep. Additionally, as rates of obesity increase, the presence of sleep apnea in this population also tends to increase. Given that adolescents are at an especially important age for brain development, it is crucial to understand just how sleep deprivation is affecting the mental and psychological faculties in this population.

For this reason, a group of researchers undertook a project to test how adolescents, aged 14-18 years, fared under conditions of sleep deprivation. In this study, subjects were tested on a number of psychosocial factors every 2 hours. They were not allowed to sleep, so measurements were obtained throughout the day and throughout the night. Additionally, after sleep deprivation, subjects were allowed to catch up on sleep and then were tested again. Performance after “catch-up” sleep was compared with performance before sleep deprivation. The tests administered to the subjects included sustained attention, reaction time, cognitive processing speed, and sleepiness.

Not surprisingly, there was a reduction in cognitive processing speed, reaction time, and sustained attention when subjects were sleep deprived, and there was also an increase in sleepiness. The catch-up sleep period did, however, seem to effectively return the cognitive functioning back near normal levels.

Interestingly, performance on these tasks was very subject-dependent, meaning not every adolescent had a decrease in performance in response to sleep deprivation. This suggests that individuals are likely to have different susceptibilities to sleep loss.

Overall, although it is unfortunate that these subjects showed cognitive processing deficits after sleep deprivation, it is uplifting to know that they were able to effectively make up sleep to the point of almost returning to normal. Unfortunately, for those with untreated sleep apnea, this catch-up sleep may never come. Untreated sleep apnea will leave you suffering from sleep loss continually. This highlights the importance of screening for sleep apnea whenever it is suspected so that our adolescents do not have to suffer from more sleep deprivation than necessary.

Source: Louca, M., & Short, M. A. (2013). The Effect of One Night's Sleep Deprivation on Adolescent Neurobehavioral Performance. Sleep, 37(11), 1799-1807.

Janna Mantua


Janna is a PhD Student / Graduate Research Assistant at University of Massachusetts Amherst with a background in clinical sleep research and psychology. Janna Mantua is a PhD student in the Behavioral Neuroscience department at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on sleep and aging, with specific projects on cognitive health, inflammation, memory formation, and neuroimaging. Prior to her PhD work, Janna was involved in research on sleep apnea and cognitive decline at the NYU Sleep Disorders Center.

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