Home > Attention, Development, Memory > Can a Habit of Sleep Deprivation Have Permanent Consequences?

Can a Habit of Sleep Deprivation Have Permanent Consequences?

Many people sacrifice sleep in order to finish that last little bit of work, but it turns out that you may be better off just going to sleep.  Few people realize the harmful effects of developing a habit of forgoing sleep.  A recent study conducted by Bawden, Oliveira, and Caramelli (2011) reveals that continued sleep deprivation can have an adverse effect on an individual’s executive functioning, attention, and memory.  Executive functioning is essentially an individual’s management system.  It is responsible for directing attention, planning, and regulating mental representations (an individual’s mental image of reality).  These functions are among the most important in carrying out daily life, and people that deprive their bodies of sufficient sleep may be cultivating a ticking time-bomb.



The specified study consisted of two groups: a control group of healthy individuals that showed no signs of issues with sleep, and a group of individuals diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).  Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition characterized by interrupted sleep as a result of blockage in an individual’s nasal passageways, which results in decreased oxygen saturation.  A person’s airways essentially collapse for a short period of time, and this occurs anywhere from zero to more than thirty times every hour.  The OSA group represents individuals that have a history of continued sleep deprivation.  The most evident symptom of OSA is excessive daytime sleepiness, but recent research has focused on the permanent cognitive impairments that can result in individuals diagnosed with OSA.


Participants were subjected to five tests: a digit-symbol test (DST), a mini-mental state examination (MMSE), a brief cognitive screen battery (BCSB), a phonemic verbal fluency test (FAS), as well as the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS).  These tests were selected because collectively, they assess an individual’s attention, memory, and executive functioning.  A brief overview of each test is provided in the referred article (see link at bottom).  The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is a self-scored test that measures an individual’s likelihood of falling asleep in different scenarios, and is used to better gauge an individual’s degree of daytime sleepiness.

Attention is important because it plays a vital role in our ability to perceive the world around us.  It allows us to shift our focus to perceive the stimuli that we encounter everyday.  For example, when attending your morning lecture, attention allows you to focus on the professor’s words and to effectively follow his or her train of thought.

Memory is another crucial cognitive function that we are using at every given moment.  Wherever you go, whatever you hear or say, taste or smell, all of this information is stored in memory.  Specifically, memory can be divided into short-term and long-term memory.  You can expect your short-term memory capacity to max out at around 30 seconds, and anything stored beyond that is encoded and stored in your long-term memory.  Without memory, our lives would consist of random actions and thoughts; imagine forgetting everything you say or do immediately after you do or say them.  Memory gives us the ability to learn from past events and to base that information on how we act in the future.

As mentioned earlier, executive functioning represents our mind’s control or disciplinary system.  It is in charge of directing our attention as well as controlling what we think about.  It keeps our mental representations in check.

The results of the study showed that the MMSE scores were higher for the control group than for the OSA group.  For the DST test results, test results were similar, but the OSA group had lower scores in the number of cells satisfied, but committed fewer errors.  The results of the BCSB test showed that the control group performed better in incidental memory, immediate memory, learning, and delayed recall.  The control group performed significantly better in the FAS test.  The takeaway from this study is that continued sleep deprivation can lead to deficits in attention, memory, and executive functioning in the long-run.

Even though obstructive sleep apnea is fairly rare (it affects roughly 2-4% of the population), all of us are susceptible to sleep deprivation, especially during our college years.  Although most people don’t suffer from sleep deprivation to the same degree that individuals with OSA do, it is important to realize that the results of this study don’t apply solely to individuals with OSA.  It’s important to remain aware of your sleep quality, and to try and maintain a proper sleep schedule.  Otherwise, if you continue to sacrifice your sleep, it may come back and bite you.




Link to Original Study: http://www.scielo.br/pdf/anp/v69n4/a03v69n4.pdf

Bawden, F.C., Oliveira, C.A., & Caramelli, P. (2011) 585-589


Kellogg, Ronald Thomas. Fundamentals of Cognitive Psychology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.

“The Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE).” Alzheimer’s Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

“Apnea-hypopnea Index.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.


If you’re interested in further exploring this topic, here are some other CogBlog posts by other authors:

The Importance of Sleep In the Context of Attention–Why you should sleep before your exams

Sleep and Memory: The importance of peripheral details

Nodding off while doing homework? Stop what you’re doing, and take a nap.



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  1. December 3rd, 2014 at 00:30 | #1

    It seems clear that poor quality sleep does result in poorer performances in attention, short-term memory and learning. However, I am wondering if this indicates any “permanent/long-term consequence,” as stated in the title and beginning of this blog post. The poorer cognitive performances could have been due to lack of sleep the night before, and may not necessarily indicate long-term damage to the brain. Unless there were controlled conditions for individuals with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) to also get as good quality sleep as the controlled group the night before the experiments were conducted.

    (This may seem like a question more from a biological point of view; but could it be that the poorer performance in individuals with OSA was also due to lack of oxygen reaching the brain during sleep? I just wondered, since you mentioned that OSA is a condition in which individual’s nasal passageways are blocked and oxygen saturation is decreased.)

  2. December 3rd, 2014 at 10:54 | #2

    What an interesting topic! I’m always feeling sleep-deprived, as I’m sure every other college student feels. I’m curious as to how individuals who aren’t diagnosed with a sleep-deprivation condition would react on these tests if experimenters recreated situations of sleep-deprivation. I think a follow-up experiment would be necessary in which groups of individuals would have varied levels of sleep-deprivation and would be tested on these same measures. Would those with the most sleep deprivation have similar results to those with OSA? Or are these results only unique to those with OSA, as it has specific symptoms? One of the problems I had with this study, however, was how the ESS came into play in the experiment. I’m always skeptical of self-assessment, as it isn’t always the greatest measure. Individual’s judgments may be skewed in different directions, and I’m curious if there’s a more concrete measure that could have been used, like legitimate data of those individuals sleep patterns. I really enjoyed this post, and am definitely reconsidering my own sleep habits!

  3. December 3rd, 2014 at 23:49 | #3

    This article spoke to me because of my bad habit of procrastination that has lead me to be one of the most sleep-deprived people. Although, I hope to never encounter the condition of Obstructive sleep apnea, I have self diagnosed myself with impairments to memory, language and attention. Like other commenters have mentioned, I do wonder how relevant this would be for people without signs of OSA, and just regular college students in terms of making a permanent/long-term consequence? My guess would be effects not as severe as OSA but effects to someone’s executive control over time (as you briefly mentioned). Although, college’s duration is typically 4 years maybe that’s enough to lessen attention control used to inhibit irrelevant perceived information for the simplest things like driving (Drew et al.). Furthermore, I am curious to know how the participants self assessment could have been biased and affected the studies results in that way. I would be more interested to know which of the three affected areas (memory, attention, and language) is impacted more and why, maybe there are direct links of one of the three areas begin a mediating factor that allows this negative cycle when deprived of sleep.

  4. October 18th, 2015 at 19:16 | #4

    Similar to previous comments, I am interested in the effects of prolonged sleep deprivation and the implications on long term cognitive function. There is evidence for deficits in distribution and allocation of attention when there is not enough sleep (Bawden, Oliveira, and Caramelli. 2011), I wonder if further studies which include a baseline, sleep deprivation for various time lengths, and more test conducted over greater periods including weeks, months and even years after the original deprivation, will show a correlation between long-term memory and cognitive function.

    The biological basis of behavior is deeply impacted by sleep, and examines the idea of a “sleep debt”, that sleep missed must be repaid at some point. Randy Gardner is a key data point in understanding the full extent of sleep deprivation, he missed approximately 88 hours of sleep but after only 1.5 nights of sleep he fully recovered and exhibited his normal sleep cycle and cognitive abilities. While an intense period of sleep loss reveals a short-term full recover, I wonder if extended periods of sleep loss break down the ability to recover fully and damage the long term cognitive abilities, function and performance.

  5. October 20th, 2015 at 18:23 | #5

    I really enjoyed reading this post given the relevance it has to everyday college life. As I read, I thought not only about the fact that sleep deprivation affects memory and attention, as suggested by Bawden, Oliveira, and Caramelli’s (2011) results, but also about how it does so. In an introductory psychology course I took in high school, we learned about dream theories that explain dreaming’s function and importance. One theory that explains the function of dreaming is the information-processing theory. This theory states that dreams serve to sort out and organize a day’s experiences into memories. Dreaming happens during REM sleep, the deepest stage of sleep, and thus is needed for dreams to occur. Since sleep deprivation means less REM sleep and less dreaming, the information-processing theory would suggest that memory is impaired by sleep deprivation because there is less dreaming that can help memories to form. People affected by OSA are commonly awakened abruptly from sleep so they would have less time to reach REM sleep and experience dreams to help memories form. This could be one explanation for the results the experimenters saw in terms of memory.
    In terms of attention, another dream theory that explains the function of dreaming is the physiological theory. This theory states that dreams function to provide the brain with periodic stimulation as we sleep, thus preserving neural networks and keeping them sharp. So, if we are deprived of sleep and therefore have less dreams, this theory would suggest that our neural networks are not being preserved as well, perhaps leading to the decrease in attentional ability seen in the OSA participants in the study.

  6. October 21st, 2015 at 15:50 | #6

    It is clear from this post that sleep deprivation affects attention and many other cognitive functions, but I wonder what its effects are on specific tasks such as shadowing and orienting. In the shadowing task, participants are asked to repeat what is heard in the attended-to ear and ignore what is heard in the unattended ear. Although I haven’t been able to find any studies on sleep deprivation and the shadowing task specifically, I suspect that people who are deprived of sleep will perform worse and commit more errors on the shadowing task than people who have not been sleep deprived. I would expect this result because sleep deprivation can lead to attentional deficits, including difficulty focusing on attended-to information and a lessened ability to inhibit distracting information (Bawden, Oliveira, & Caramelli, 2011). This could be a potential area of future research, which could look into the mechanisms of attentional deficits in individuals who are sleep deprived.

    Another aspect of attention that sleep deprivation may affect is orienting. Exogenous orienting is an uncontrollable, reflexive redirection of attention to a stimulus. Endogenous orienting is a voluntary shift of attention to a stimulus that you can control. Martella, Marotta, Fuentes, and Casagrande (2014) conducted a study to determine if low vigilance due to sleep deprivation affects orienting. They found that participants who were deprived of sleep showed a reduced arousal level and did not exhibit inhibition of return (the suppression of orienting toward previously attended-to stimuli, which allows for orienting toward new stimuli). This suggests that decreased vigilance as a result of sleep deprivation affects endogenous orienting (Martella et al., 2014). These are both more examples of how sleep deprivation can affect attention, and how important sleep is for cognitive functions.

  7. ruhe
    October 21st, 2015 at 17:05 | #7

    This article reminds me of an article I read before about whether it is scientific that people should sleep early and get up early rather than sleep late and get up late. In the other article the author mentioned that according to surveys from American Cancer Society, people who sleep 8 hours everyday actually won’t live longer than people who sleep 7 or 9 hours. I found this fact very interesting. Also there are surveys showing that different people have different preferences on sleeping time: some might sleep late and work efficiently the next day while others need to sleep early. According to what we learned in intro psych, it is better for people to sleep hours that are multiples of 1.5 hours because 1.5 hours is how long a full sleeping cycle lasts.

    As somewhat mentioned by other comments, during the period of sleeping, people will experience five stages. In stage 1 and 2 people are easily weaken up and in stage 3 and 4 people tend to go into deeper sleep, where our body really start to recover. Stage 5 is the rapid eye movement period, which is also called dream sleep because we have dreams on this stage. When we have very little sleeping time or sleep with irregular time schedule, our body tend to remove other sleeping stages to compensate the time on stage 3 and 4 for our body to recover because these deep sleep stages are important for immune system to function. Some scientists argue that the lack of sleeping time during the REM period will cause people to lose memory of what they have learned during the day. As a result, when people feel they can’t remember something, it might not because they lose their memory during the day but rather at night.

    Moreover, during night or darkness, people will start to generate Melatonin, a hormone which cause people to sleep. The generation of Melatonin is largely affected by how much sunshine we get during the day: the more sunshine we get, the slower rate Melatonin will generate. Therefore, if we get sufficient sunshine during the day, then we might have more energy to work during evening. Thus, it will be interesting if we can study whether there are difference on performance of memory for students who have class in the classroom with sunshine and those without sunshine.

  8. October 21st, 2015 at 23:32 | #8

    This article interested me because it compares a study done on results in the long-term cognitive functions of those affected by sleep apnea, with the stress and sleep deprivation students face in their college years. Not only can insufficient sleep result in a lack of attention, but it also shortens your sleep cycle, which cuts short the time allowed to store information into your long-term memory during your sleep cycle. It is important to give your body sufficient time to complete the stages of this cycle, because this is when your hippocampus processes the events of the day and stores information to long-term.
    If this experiment had been continued, it would be interesting to retest individuals with sleep apnea after they received treatment to see whether the attention, memory, and executive functioning abilities increased after they were able to recover from a long period of sleep deprivation.

  9. mzhao
    October 22nd, 2015 at 14:24 | #9

    This is a really interesting topic. I started to research my own sleeping habit because I noticed my “cognitive function lost” over four years due to sleep deprivation and procrastination. I bought myself a Jawbone Up wristband which reports my sleep time and sleep cycle graph (hypnogram). Even though the precision of the data and method of measuring is under debate, I was astonished to see that some nights when my sleep time is less than six hours, I had problem entering deep sleep and REM. REM is known to be the stage of sleep when memory consolidation happens and I totally missed a wonderful opportunity of learning.

    The study of Bawden, Oliveira, and Caramelli (2011) clearly demonstrated what may happen if my sleep deprivation continues and I started wondering whether the cognitive function loss may recover for OSA patients when their OSA is treated. This question can be asked in a more general way that whether cognitive function loss may recover for people with sleep deprivation. My guess would be even though our brain has certain level of plasticity, whether cognitive function may recover largely depends on the stage of development (age). Prof. Yeterian mentioned in class that our brain continue to develop until the age of 25. Therefore, young people may have better ability of regrowing neurons and rebuilding synapses than older people that young people may have a better chance to recover than old people when encounter the same level of cognitive function loss due to sleep deprivation. Future research can be conducted on function loss recovery when sleep deprivation is improved in different age groups.

  10. October 22nd, 2015 at 20:46 | #10

    I find this article interesting, especially due to its relevance to myself and other classmates. Being college students, we often find ourselves staying up late to finish a paper or to study for an exam. Some people might even find themselves staying up in bed all night watching Netflix. For whatever reason, it seems college students are always struggling to get enough sleep. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it happened once or twice, however, repeated occurrences can be detrimental to a person’s health. As was mentioned in this article, sleep deprivation greatly affects attention and memory, both of which are very crucial to a college student. While cramming all night for a test may help short-term, the longterm effects could outweigh the benefits of getting a good grade on a test. A history of sleep deprivation can lead to shortened attention, and a lack of retention in longterm memory. Students with sleep deprivation will struggle to do simple tasks that once were easily. They’ll have a harder time focusing in class, directing their attention where it is required, and inhibiting distractions that are detrimental to learning. A student suffering from sleep deprivation will also have a hard time retaining information into their longterm memory. They’ll end up being more forgetful, and struggle to recall information even after they’ve studied. Without enough sleep, information from a person’s short term memory can’t be encoded into longterm memory. To summarize, a college students health and academic career can deteriorate greatly when suffering from sleep deprivation. It would be interesting to continue this study to find out if sleep deprivation can lead to longterm effects on a persons health.

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