College student cognition threatened by lack of sleep



Hungry, rowdy, and especially sleepy are stereotypes that follow college students, and all three can be attributed to the lack of sleep college students get on a regular basis, says a UT professor. Theresa Lee, dean of arts and sciences, claims cognitive problems college students face is due to more time counting assignments than counting sheep.

Speaking at the Weekly Science Forum on Friday, December 1, Lee explained a lack of sleep can lead to decreased motivation, diligence, and performance, along with increases in moodiness, aggressiveness, and hunger.  She also said that while most people recognize the symptoms of fatigue, few realize that sleep is useful biologically implications.

“Sleep is the brain regulating its function,” Lee said.

Lee stated that when a person has been awake for 18 continuous hours, the person’s cognition is that of a .05 percent blood alcohol content, which can significantly impair daily function such as driving.

Sleep is foremost a time for the body to rest and repair from daily activity, explained Lee. One of the most important and overlooked aspects of sleep us the chemical flush of the brain, during which fluid will literally flush though the brain and body to wipe out chemical debris the body has accumulated in a day’s work.

She advises her first year college students that when the choice comes down between sleep and study the night before an exam, always choose sleep because retention and decision making are both strongly correlated with sleep. When a person’s body hasn’t gotten the amount of sleep it needs, the brain can retreat into a stage of “micro-sleep,” moments of mental and physical rest that mimic shortened sleep sequences.

The incremental control of when the body is awake and asleep is the gating mechanism for a person’s circadian rhythms.  This cyclical biological rhythm for sleep and wake alongside chemicals like melatonin, which consolidate a person’s ability to fall asleep, do not work if the lights are on, both figuratively and literally. White light from the screens laptops, televisions, or phones can disrupt the mind’s sleep cycles.

“Sleep is a biological rhythm… you need to think of it regularly,” Lee said.

Lee claims the magic number for hours of sleep a person needs per night is at least seven.  Eight or nine hours of sleep would be a nice goal, but not always obtainable for students during the busy stages of college according to Lee. Lee also had a magic number for naps, stating 15-30 minutes is enough to jump-start your brain without influencing the body’s natural sleep cycles.

Lee gave permission and encouragement for long and restful sleep over the college’s winter break.



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