Megan Brooks

June 08, 2015

SEATTLE — Teenagers who do not get enough sleep have trouble paying attention and take longer to complete tasks, and these effects are cumulative and not completely ameliorated by sleeping in on the weekends, new research shows.

"Adolescents are chronically sleep restricted, and sleep-restricted adolescents feel sleepier and are less able to sustain attention. This could result in academic underachievement, which has been linked to underemployment and low-paid employment," said lead researcher Alexandra Agostini, from the Centre for Sleep Research at the University of South Australia in Adelaide.

She reported her research here at SLEEP 2015: Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

It is well known that adolescents do not get enough sleep. Because of biological and psychosocial factors, they tend to have later bedtimes during adolescence, but have to rise early for school. The negative effects of sleep restriction on daytime functioning in adults are documented, but little is known about the effects of sleep restriction on adolescent functioning.

To investigate, the study team recruited 12 adolescents, aged 15 to 17 years, who were physically and psychologically healthy and free of any sleep disorder, to spend 10 days in their sleep laboratory. After 1 adaptation night and 1 baseline night consisting of 10 hours' time in bed, time in bed was restricted to 5 hours for 5 nights, followed by 2 recovery nights of 10 hours' time in bed.

The researchers assessed the effect of 5 consecutive nights of sleep restriction on the psychomotor vigilance task, a sustained-attention, reaction-timed task that measures the speed with which subjects respond to a visual stimulus. They also measured subjective sleepiness, using the Karolinska Sleepiness Scale.

"Five nights of sleep restriction led to diminished ability to sustain attention, longer response times, and greater subjective sleepiness," Agostini reported during her presentation. And although subjective sleepiness returned to baseline levels after a night of recovery, psychomotor vigilance task performance did not return to baseline levels after recovery.

"Adolescents may not be aware of the performance deficits caused by sleep restriction," Agostini said.

It is also noteworthy, she said, that the greatest attentional problems and greatest subjective sleepiness occurred at the beginning of the day. "Poor morning performance and excessive sleepiness can have negative impacts on academic achievement and class attendance," she said.

Across the school week, adolescents can accumulate a substantial "sleep debt that may have meaningful, negative implications for school performance. Furthermore, weekend recovery sleep may not be adequate to overcome deficits incurred through the week," she and her colleagues note in their meeting abstract.

Reached for comment, Saul Rothenberg, PhD, behavioral sleep psychologist, North Shore-LIJ Sleep Disorders Center in Great Neck, New York, said, "Teens in general are chronically sleep deprived, and this study shows that too little sleep leads to impairment, and that parallels adult data, but that needed to be established in teens as well."

"The most important finding," Dr Rothenberg told Medscape Medical News, "is that the effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative, which has also been shown in adults."

The study was supported by the University of South Australia Divisional Research Fund Grant and a grant from the Australasian Sleep Association. The authors and Dr Rothenberg have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2015: Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies: Abstract 0031. Presented June 7, 2015.

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