Pulling an all-nighter? Avoid making important decisions the next day

All-nighters seem to be a right of passage for students trying to make an important deadline. But lots of people working in high-stress positions, such as medicos, politicians and first responders, have to make important decisions after a night without sleep.

Now, a new study in the journal Psychophysiology has found that a 24-hour period of sleep deprivation significantly impacts individuals’ decision-making processes by dampening the brain’s responses to the outcomes of their choices.

“Common sense does dictate if people incur sleep loss, sleep disturbance or a sleep disorder,  that their cognitive function will be impacted, their attention and efficiency will decrease. But there is an emotional impact, too,” says Zhuo Fang, a Data Scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

“If you experience even just one night of sleep deprivation, there will be an impact, even on a neural level. So, we wanted to combine brain imaging and behaviour to see that impact.”

The study evaluated the impact of one night of total sleep deprivation on 56 healthy adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging, to visualise the brain’s responses to risk-taking. This was carried out in two sessions: one well-rested and the other after a night of sleep loss.

Using a modified Balloon Analogue Risk Task, a computerised decision-making task used to assess risk-taking behaviour, they found that pulling an all-nighter decreased the amount of brain activation in response to win and loss outcomes.

Basically, people tended to have reduced positive emotions in response to winning, and reduced negative emotions in response to losing, compared their well-rested baseline.

This suggests that a single night of total sleep loss disrupts the relationship between neural responses and an individual’s risk taking behaviour, which might be related to the altered perception for risk-taking.

“These results underscore the importance of maintaining adequate sleep and how individuals should refrain from making important decisions when experiencing chronic or acute sleep deprivation,” says Fang.

“In specific professions where decision-makers are required to operate under accumulated sleep loss, specialised training or fatigue risk management might be necessary to enable them to handle such situations effectively.”

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