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Altered brain response to verbal learning following sleep deprivation


The effects of sleep deprivation on the neural substrates of cognition are poorly understood. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the effects of 35 hours of sleep deprivation on cerebral activation during verbal learning in normal young volunteers. On the basis of a previous hypothesis1, we predicted that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) would be less responsive to cognitive demands following sleep deprivation. Contrary to our expectations, however, the PFC was more responsive after one night of sleep deprivation than after normal sleep. Increased subjective sleepiness in sleep-deprived subjects correlated significantly with activation of the PFC. The temporal lobe was activated after normal sleep but not after sleep deprivation; in contrast, the parietal lobes were not activated after normal sleep but were activated after sleep deprivation. Although sleep deprivation significantly impaired free recall compared with the rested state, better free recall in sleep-deprived subjects was associated with greater parietal lobe activation. These findings show that there are dynamic, compensatory changes in cerebral activation during verbal learning after sleep deprivation and implicate the PFC and parietal lobes in this compensation.

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This research was supported by an individual NRSA to S.P.A.D., a Mental Health Clinical Research Center grant from NIMH (J.C.G.), the UCSD General Clinical Research Center, the Department of Veterans Affairs research service, and the VA Desert-Pacific Healthcare Network Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center (MIRECC).

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Correspondence to J. Christian Gillin.

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Figure 1: Within-subject significant t-tests for mean differences in activation between rested and SD nights.


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