Prolonged periods of sleep restriction seem to be common in the contemporary world. Sleep loss causes perturbations of circadian rhythmicity and degradation of waking alertness as reflected in attention, cognitive efficiency and memory. Understanding whether and how the human brain recovers from chronic sleep loss is important not only from a scientific but also from a public health perspective. In this work we report on behavioral, motor, and neurophysiological correlates of sleep loss in healthy adults in an unprecedented study conducted in natural conditions and comprising 21 consecutive days divided into periods of 4 days of regular life (a baseline), 10 days of chronic partial sleep restriction (30% reduction relative to individual sleep need) and 7 days of recovery.
Throughout the whole experiment we continuously measured the spontaneous locomotor activity by means of actigraphy with 1-minute resolution. On a daily basis the subjects were undergoing EEG measurements (64-electrodes with 500 Hz sampling frequency): resting state with eyes open and closed (8 minutes long each) followed by Stroop task lasting 22 minutes. Altogether we analyzed actigraphy (distributions of rest and activity durations), behavioral measures (reaction times and accuracy from Stroop task) and EEG (amplitudes, latencies and scalp maps of event-related potentials from Stroop task and power spectra from resting states). We observed unanimous deterioration in all the measures during sleep restriction.
Further results indicate that a week of recovery subsequent to prolonged periods of sleep restriction is insufficient to recover fully. Only one measure (mean reaction time in Stroop task) reverted to baseline values, while the others did not.