New Study Explains Why Lack of Sleep Affects Us Differently

Written by Dr. Ahmed Zayed
Sleep Deprivation

The CDC reports[1] that one in three American adults doesn’t get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep turned into a common problem and doesn’t show the signs of slowing down. Most of us don’t have a specific sleep schedule and spend nights binge-watching Netflix or watching TV. Without good night’s rest, the productivity at work decreases as energy levels decline.

While lack of sleep exhibits negative effects on our physical and mental health, not all people experience the consequences equally. The latest study revealed that genes play the role in a way you experience sleep deprivation (SD).

Sleep Deprivation Effects

Insufficient sleep has a number of side effects. Previous reports published[2] by CDC stated that 23.2% of adults older than 20 have trouble concentrating while 18.2% people in the same age group struggle to remember information. In addition to weak cognitive skills, sleep deprivation acts as a risk factor for obesity, stress, hypertension, diabetes, some types of cancers, among other negative health outcomes.

Although insufficient sleep has become a global public health problem, its effects on decision-making and performance tend to be underestimated by exhausted and fatigued persons.

Harmful consequences of SD are attributed to vigilant attention lapses, but they fail to address other effects such as loss of situational awareness and preservation. Scientists are still trying to understand the full impact of sleep deprivation on our overall health and why it affects people differently.

Genes And Sleep Deprivation

Genes And Sleep Deprivation

Professor of psychology at Washington State University, Paul Whitney, and his team of researchers carried out a study whose primary intention was to understand the underlying mechanisms responsible for the different impact of SD on cognitive skills in different people.

They enrolled 49 participants without the history of learning disability. All participants reported good habitual sleep pattern of 6 to 10 hours a day and they regularly woke up between 6 am and 9 am. The mean age of participants was 27 and they were assigned to different groups.

One group involved 34 participants who had to go 38 hours without sleep while the second group included 15 adults. Since the latter was a control group, participants needn’t change their sleep habits or deprive themselves of good night’s rest.

Prior to and after the experiment, all participants from both groups were asked to complete a task using a mouse and computer screen. The main purpose of this task was to test the ability to correctly click the left mouse button when certain letter combination appears on the screen.

Right mouse button had to be used for all other pairs. The simple experiment was used to inspect flexible attentional control of each participant who had to complete it accurately and as fast as possible.

Somewhere in the middle of the testing period, scientists would stop participants and asked them to do something else. In the meantime, the team of scientists conducted analyses of genotypes and divided participants from SD group into those with and without DRD2 gene.

The Scientific Reports[3] published results of the experiment which demonstrated that genes do play a role in a way someone experiences effects of sleep depression.

What Does DRD2 Gene Do?

Gene called DRD2 belongs to the group of dopaminergic receptors, activated by neurotransmitter dopamine, and it regulates information processes in a brain region linked with cognitive flexibility. Persons without this gene variation got confused and weren’t able to perform their task correctly when told to stop and process the new information.

Whitney and his team discovered that participants with a DRD2 variation performed their task just as well as people from the control group, despite sleep deprivation. Scientists explain the gene affects our ability to mentally alter direction when we have to deal with new information.

This particular gene has the potential to protect people that carry it from SD effects. Not all people have this gene and they aren’t able to switch from one task to another easily.


The latest study revealed that persons with DRD2 gene can perform cognitive tasks correctly even when they’re sleep deprived. These findings confirm that all of us experience consequences of insufficient sleep differently and our genes play a role.

More research is necessary to understand full effects of sleep deprivation on our cognitive skills and all aspects of mental and physical health.

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Contributor : Dr. Ahmed Zayed ()

This Article Has Been Published on January 4, 2018 and Last Modified on December 12, 2018

Dr. Ahmed Zayed Helmy holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. He has completed his degree in 2011 at the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed believes in providing knowledgeable information to readers. Other than his passion for writing, currently he is working as a Plastic surgeon and is doing his masters at Ain Shams University. You can connect with him on Linkedin.

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