Driving while exhausted is as risky as drink-driving, study finds

Driving while exhausted is as risky as drink-driving, study finds

As participants endured a night without sleep, their performance (and brain cells) slowed. The resulting cognitive lapses in turn affect how one perceives and reacts to their surroundings.

The study participants were then asked to categorize images as fast as they can.

"But it has been hard to determine precisely how sleep deprivation influences neural activity within the human brain owing to the invasive techniques required to record neural activity".

The clinical study by Yuval Nir from Tel Aviv University and colleagues was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

A sleepless night slows down our brain cells, creating mental lapses as we space out at work, at school and behind the wheel. This disrupted brain activity affects how one can effectively perform their tasks. "Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual", he explained.

The scans suggested a lack of sleep was interfering with the neurons' ability to translate what was being seen into coherent thoughts, in the same way that a exhausted driver takes a moment to react to a pedestrian stepping out into the road. A exhausted driver, for example, may not notice a pedestrian stepping in front of his vehicle.

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However, the link between tiredness and road traffic accidents is not a new one: it's estimated that hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries in the U.S. alone are caused each year by drivers dozing off at the wheel and not being able to react fast enough. "It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving", says Dr. Nir.

This examination will also help the researchers to understand why seizures develop on sleep deprivation. When drivers are exhausted, for example, their attention wanders because the neurons aren't responding as efficiently as they should.

In a second finding, the researchers discovered that slower brain waves accompanied sluggish cellular activity in the same regions of the patients' brains.

"Inadequate sleep exerts a similar influence on our brain as drinking too much", said Fried. Fried thinks the data they got from tracking actual cell activity is evidence enough to start taking exhausted driving much more seriously.

"Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying over-tired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers", he adds.
"This phenomenon suggests that select regions of the patients' brains were dozing, causing mental lapses, while the rest of the brain was awake and running as usual", said Fried.

The research was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Human Frontier Science Program Organization, the Israel Science Foundation, the Marie Curie Career Integration Grant, the Adelis Foundation and the French Operations Research and Decision Support Society.

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