A research study conducted at Washington State University (WSU) into the effects of sleep deprivation on executive functioning—the ability to initiate, monitor, and stop actions to achieve objectives—has yielded surprising results and caused a shift in the current thinking on this topic.

The study found that sleep deprivation affects distinct cognitive processes in different ways. The researchers found that working memory—a key element of executive functioning—was essentially unaffected by as much as 51 hours of total sleep deprivation. Instead, they saw a degradation of nonexecutive components of cognition, such as information intake, that accounted for the overall impairment in subjects’ performance on cognitive tasks. In other words, the sleep-deprived brain appears to be capable of processing information, but this information may be distorted before it can be processed.

These results challenge an existing theory that states that sleep deprivation affects executive functions more than nonexecutive cognitive processes. They also show that previous experimental support for this theory was hampered by task impurity, the problem that any cognitive performance task involves a number of intertwined cognitive processes that must be distinguished to really understand the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance.

“These findings are significant for our understanding of how sleep deprivation affects the brain,” said Hans Van Dongen, principal investigator on the study and a research professor in the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center. “They show that a large body of research on the effects of sleep deprivation needs to be revisited to verify the conclusions, which may have been drawn incorrectly because of task impurity issues.”

The study was published in the January 2010 issue of the journal SLEEP.