One Night of Sleep Deprivation May Significantly Impact Decision Making


Neuroimaging showed that people who lacked sleep had altered risk-taking behaviors.

Sleep loss can affect anyone, but new research suggests that people who spend an entire night without sleep should not make an important decision the following day, according to a recent press release that discusses research from the University of Ottawa in Canada, which was published in Psychophysiology. One night of no sleep may significantly impact neural responses in the brain, which may alter risk-taking behavior and can affect cognitive wellbeing.

Image credit: Graphicroyalty

Image credit: Graphicroyalty

“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,” saiddata scientist Zhuo Fang, Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa, in the press release. “But there is an emotional impact, too.”

Sleep is important for cognitive performance. It also regulates emotional wellbeing and is largely associated with general health. Previous studies indicate that too-little sleep can reduce vigilant attention, motor responses, inhibition control, working memory, and other neurocognitive activities in the brain; however, there are few data that show the impact of too-little sleep on risk-taking behaviors on a brain imaging scan.

Researchers from the University of Ottawa partnered with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania to use neuroimaging to show how suboptimal sleep might impact risk-taking behavior.

The team enrolled 56 adults into the study, all of whom were required to stay awake for 24 hours. The participants then had their brains scanned, and researchers evaluated behavior based on the neuroimaging, explained Fang in the press release. The study investigators

observed that 1 night of sleep deprivation impacts a person at the neural level. According to the brain scans, a sleepless night reduced brain activation in relation to win and loss outcomes. So—in the face of a win—people with sleep deprivation experienced fewer positive emotions. Conversely, people were more likely to experience fewer negative emotions when faced with a loss. In essence, a person’s neural response to outcomes (good or bad) were dulled.

The study also showed that people who experience total sleep deprivation might have an altered perception of risk-taking, which could be attributed to dampened neural response.

For certain professions, such as those in politics, the military, and the medical space, the study authors suggest that these individuals avoid making important decisions if they had a night of little-to-no sleep. If, despite a lack of sleep, important decision-making is deemed necessary, Fang suggests offering these individuals specialized training or fatigue risk managementstrategies to reduce the possibility of poor decision-making.

“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,” Fang said in the press release.


Pulling an all-nighter? Don’t follow with an important decision. University of Ottawa. News Release. November 29, 2023. Accessed on November 30, 2023.

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