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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Skipping sleep to study for finals comes at a cost, UW researchers say

‘In human adolescence, sleepiness or sleep deprivation has become what’s considered, at this point, almost an epidemic,’ UW researcher says

Sleepiness feels like a constant in many college student’s daily life with missed classes and midday naps.

This plague peaks in finals season, leaving many students fighting back against tired eyes. They sacrifice hours of sleep for late night study sessions, causing a catch-up game in both school and sleep.

These battles share a similar root issue — sleep deprivation. Researchers like assistant director of compliance and outreach Stephanie Jones at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, also known as WISC, study the neuroscience behind sleep and the causes and effects of sleep deprivation. 


Sleep plays two key roles for the brain, Jones said, as it consolidates information it receives throughout the day and it filters out noise, thus resetting for next day function. These imperative operations make sleep “an absolute biological necessity” which cannot be avoided.

“Every single organism on the planet that we have studied that has a nervous system, sleeps — everything, even fruit flies,” Jones said. “If sleep didn’t serve a vital function, evolution would have dispensed with it.”

Jones studies the role sleep plays in cognitive and emotional function during human brain development, so she deals with people from ages four to 20 years old.

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Jones said the years of adolescence in high school and college are a distinctly difficult period of life when it comes to sleep, both due to social factors and biological factors.

Non-human mammals begin to show hormone induced changes in their sleep patterns during adolescence. Along with increased screen time, these factors cause people to begin sleeping irregularly around high school and college.

“In human adolescence, sleepiness or sleep deprivation has become what’s considered, at this point, almost an epidemic,” Jones said.

For students, this can have a significant impact on their performance in school.

Sleep deprivation results in difficulty conducting simple, habitual activities, like driving. Jones said parts of the brain can tune out and catch rest while the rest of the brain remains awake, a phenomenon called regional sleep, which complicates performing particular routine tasks.

Additionally, sleep helps monitor mood and emotions. Jones said many psychiatric disorders are associated with sleep pathology and this can be tracked to the adolescent years when sleep quality starts to decline.

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“Sleep loss impacts both those things. It negatively impacts daytime learning and negatively impacts night time consolidation of material,” Jones said. “And don’t forget the mood piece. Sleep loss has a profound effect on mood regulation.”

The neuroscience of sleep points to the issues in general functionality, but sleep also finds itself intertwined with many health implications.

The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort, also known as WSC, is a study that started back in the 80’s following around 1500 participants to better understand the different health effects of sleep apnea and poor sleep. Erika Hagen is the Associate Director of Scientific Operations and she is currently studying how mid-life sleep can affect physical and cognitive ability in later years.

WSC Director Paul Peppard said sleep and health are connected, as poor sleep can cause or be caused by different health issues. Sleep apnea, a condition that causes irregular stopping and starting of breathing in sleep, is linked to cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease and possibly greater risk of cancer, Peppard said. On top of that, insomnia and sleep deprivation are associated with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.

“Almost anything you can imagine that’s a common health issue is related to sleep in some way or other. So, many health conditions affect sleep,” Peppard said.

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A wide range of outcomes can come from disrupted sleep or irregular sleep patterns, Peppard said, including weight gain and higher risk of metabolic syndrome or diabetes.

While a lot of short term outcomes of sleep are well studied and understood, the long term health effects are not entirely known at this time. In student life, sacrificing sleep for school work could have downstream implications on health — an unknown risk.

“We do know if you don’t get enough sleep, for example, and you get in the car and drive, you’re more likely to have an accident and kill yourself or kill somebody else. These sorts of things can be quantified,” Peppard said. “But with the long term price of trade offs that we make for sleep as young adults, we don’t know the long term prices.”

One study in progress looks at if people who get less sleep in their young adult to midlife years end up with faster decline in cognitive abilities at old age, Peppard said.

Considering the unknown long-term health effects of sleep, students should be watching after their sleep schedules rather than sacrificing hours of sleep for school work. Maintaining good a good sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is imperative at a college age, Jones said.

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Additional advice for maintaining good sleep is to only sleep in bed, as opposed to doing homework or watching tv in bed. Jones also recommends using blue light filters and generally using screens less before bed.

Jones recently finished a trial with healthy teens using a sleep wearable headband, called smart sleep, developed by WISC and Philips Respironics that records sleep activity in the brain and sends auditory stimuli to enhance slow wave activity, or deep sleep. She found increased slow wave activity was linked to increased happiness. This device will be available for commercial use in the United States soon.

With some of the worlds premier sleep researchers conducting their studies here, this trial was one of many different studies surrounding sleep at UW. Understanding the impact of sleep on daily life and long term health is a developing field and there is a lot more to learn.

“I think of all the things in the world of medicine and public health, I think it’s a relatively new field,” Hagen said. “There is still a lot that’s not understood about even what happens when you sleep. Even the basic science side of it, what it’s for and what gets accomplished in your brain. That’s still a rather young field.”

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