Poor Sleep Results in Reduced Decision-Making Ability

Sleep Researchers reviewing data

Researchers in the Department of Translational Medicine and Physiology have discovered a compelling link between insufficient sleep and one’s ability to make new decisions in response to changing circumstances.   

While robust research literature has shown the adverse effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive processes, this study suggests the effects of sleep loss on adaptive decision-making go beyond fatigue.  

People worldwide suffer from insufficient sleep, and with it comes numerous health and safety implications. This project examined how cognitive flexibility—the ability to adjust decision-making strategy based on changing feedback during real-time tasks—is impaired after sleep deprivation.  

In a set of experiments, researchers were able to first establish a baseline of how one may adapt their decision-making processes and then demonstrate performance deficits on the same behavioral tasks following insufficient sleep.  

“The study showed that sleep deprivation results in a tendency to make repeated mistakes despite repeated poor outcomes” said Christopher J. Davis, PhD, associate professor and project collaborator.  

Cognitive rigidity refers to the diminished ability to change behavior or beliefs in response to new information, even when that current behavior pattern is shown to be ineffective at reaching a desired outcome.  

“The negative impacts of sleep loss on adaptive decision-making are a cause for concern,” said co-investigator and professor Jonathan Wisor, PhD. “These findings are particularly relevant to workplace settings such as hospital emergency rooms and military operations, where life and death decisions are made at any moment regardless of the level of fatigue in the decision-maker.”  

Though these findings underline the critical importance of quality sleep for optimal cognitive functioning and decision-making, there is an unmet need for studies that show the underlying mechanism of these impairments in the brain.  

The research team leveraged these recent findings to secure a two-year, $275,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to advance the understanding of these mechanisms by identifying brain circuits and cellular processes involved in cognitive rigidity.  

The project will use state-of-the-art techniques to investigate a small population of neurons in the brain known to be involved in decision-making. This will allow our researchers to examine intracellular signals that underlie the adverse effects of
sleep loss.  

“We will measure and manipulate the electrical activity and internal biochemical makeup of these neurons,” said project collaborator Marcos Frank, PhD. “We hope to delineate the role these cells play in regulating the decision-making process under sleep-deprived conditions.” 

The current study was able to take a translational approach to model the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive rigidity but approaches to mitigating that cognitive dysfunction is elusive.  

“We hope to identify potential intervention strategies that make decision-making capabilities resilient to fatigue,” said Davis. “Such mitigation techniques could have far-reaching implications for individuals across diverse professions and demographics.” 

The research team includes Davis, Frank, Wisor, and Kit Hayworth, PhD, as well as WSU research analyst Michelle Schmidt, MS. The project was supported by a Department of Defense grant, on which Hans Van Dongen, PhD, served as principal investigator.