A recent study highlights the negative correlation between inadequate sleep and the decline of working memory and executive functions among college students.


Summary: A Georgia State University study found that inadequate sleep among college students, a group including a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, significantly impairs their working memory and executive functions. Surveying 29 participants using the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index and informant reports, the research uncovered that 62% experienced poor sleep, correlating with diminished cognitive abilities. The study underscores the impact of sleep on young adults’ cognitive health and emphasizes the importance of sleep hygiene for academic and daily performance.

Key Takeaways: 

  • The study conducted by Georgia State University focused on the effects of inadequate sleep on higher-level cognitive skills and working memory among college students, revealing that poor sleep negatively impacts these areas.
  • Unlike previous studies that predominantly included non-Hispanic white participants, this research featured a more diverse demographic, with 27.5% non-Hispanic white, 31% Black, and 27.6% Asian participants, providing new insights into the sleep patterns and cognitive effects across different ethnic groups.
  • A significant finding from the study is that 62% of participants reported poor sleep, and those sleeping fewer than seven hours a night showed considerably lower performance in working memory and executive function, aligning with previous research linking sleep deprivation to reduced brain tissue in critical areas.

A new study has found that college students don’t get nearly enough sleep and that it is negatively impacting their higher-level cognitive skills—also known as executive function—and working memory.

The research from Georgia State University, conducted by Maria Milagros Parrilla, a biology major working in professor Tricia King’s lab, looked specifically at diverse college-aged students, a demographic that isn’t looked at often in these kinds of studies. 

Their findings were published in Applied Neuropsychology: Adult.

Diversity in Sleep Research

“Other studies on this topic include over 85% non-Hispanic white, while our sample was 27.5% non-Hispanic white, 31% Black, and 27.6% Asian—much more diverse than all prior studies,” says King, PhD, in a release. 

Parrilla adds in a release, “Research has found that less than 5% of neuropsychology research has focused on ethnic minority groups. It’s not really representative of our population. Personally, I have terrible sleep, and I know a lot of my peers have really terrible sleep habits, too. So, I thought, we have a dataset that are college students just like me.”

The Impact of Poor Sleep

After examining the literature with her graduate student mentor Rella Kautiainen, Parrilla decided to look for a relationship between bad sleep or a lack of sleep and things like working memory and executive function.

“Executive function is an umbrella term for many different higher-order thinking skills and working memory is one of those. Working memory is how well you are able to briefly hold and manipulate information, like remembering a phone number after being briefly interrupted by someone. Cognitive flexibility and inhibition are others,” King says in a release.

Parrilla adds, “It’s all of these higher-order cognitive processes, like planning and problem-solving, that are very important in our day-to-day responsibilities.” 

In all, the study had 29 participants who were an average of 20 years old. Participants filled out the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index, which is a self-rated questionnaire that assesses sleep quality and disturbances over a one-month time interval.

Findings and Implications

In addition, Parrilla used information from informants for her research. The informants were people who see and interact with the participants daily, such as parents, roommates, and partners, and report on participants’ behavior. After the participants in the study completed their surveys, the informants would then fill out both the Frontal Systems Behavior Scale and the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function. These surveys are used to determine if the participants experienced apathy, disinhibition, and different executive function problems, such as with working memory.

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Using these measures, Parrilla was able to get a fuller picture of how bad sleep impacts the lives of college students. “We found negative correlations between the amount of sleep and working memory and executive function,” Parrilla says in a release.

In total, 62% of participants reported poor sleep. Those who reported fewer than seven hours a night of sleep had much lower informant ratings of the person’s working memory and executive function. These findings also align with previous research that used neuroimaging to show that individuals who slept less than seven hours a night had significantly less grey matter (brain tissue that plays a crucial role in allowing you to function normally) in their brains than those who got enough sleep.

A Call for Better Sleep Habits

Though their results were very similar to studies with less diverse groups, King and Parrilla say it’s important to be intentional in recruiting diverse individuals to better represent all demographics and replicate scientific findings.

The main takeaway for King and Parrilla is to urge college students to get more sleep.

“It’s going to help with your mood and your cognitive abilities,” Parrilla says in a release. “Poor sleep quality in young adults was associated with decreased quality of life based on self-report measures of stress, depression, mobility, self-care, and pain and discomfort.”
King also encourages people to do their own research into good sleep hygiene, using sources like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which offers guidelines for good sleep.

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