The Science of Sleep

By Mackenzie Troehler, Natalie Guyette, and Victoria Ostergaard

Many students have pulled an all-nighter to finish up that assignment forgot about until the night before, but what effects can sleep deprivation have on us the next day? the rest of our lives?

Three students of Professor Laura Otto’s Print and Web Class decided to perform a sleep experiment in which they attempted to skip out on sleep two nights in a row in the name of journalism.

What Happens When We Sleep?

Mount Mary psychology professor Dr. Lonergan-Cullum explains what happens in our brain when we close our lids.

“There are different, not to get too technical, stages of consciousness, and sleep is not unconsciousness because things are happening though we are unconsciously aware of those things,” Dr. Lonergan-Cullum said.

Essentially, your brain is busy though you aren’t aware of it. While we are asleep overnight, our brains cycle through four different stages of sleep, each varying in brainwave activity.

BrainWavesWhen you are awake and attentive, you brain is producing Beta waves. When you close your eyes to sleep, you are changing the wave pattern, putting yourself into an Alpha wave pattern. Dr. Lonergan-Cullum describes this Alpha wave as being associated with a “more of a restful wakefulness” that is not sleep but more of resting or daydreaming.

Stages 1 and 2 of the sleep cycle consist of Theta, also known as Delta, wave patterns that occur during the process of trying to sleep. As you slowly progress into sleep, parts of your brain are still active, making the wave pattern look a little chaotic, desynchronized.

These waves have a higher amplitude, but with less frequency. With further progression into your sleep, Stages 3 and 4 begin and parts of the brain become less metabolically active, while other parts settle into a rhythm, synchronizing.

“The parts of sleep that are vitally important are the slow wave sleep patterns, which are seen in stages 3 and 4,” said Dr. Lonergan-Cullum. “This has the most amount of delta waves, as well as REM sleep.”

REM sleep is a combination of alpha and theta waves where you begin to dream and your brain can process information properly.

“REM sleep has [a role] in terms of memory consolidation,” said Dr. Lonergan-Cullum.


Want more information about REM sleep? Try this.
Curious about sleep cycles? Check this out.
Learn more about brain waves here.

What are the Short and Long Term Effects from Sleep Deprivation?

As college students, there are nights where we choose to stay up to cram for a test or quickly write a paper that we procrastinated on. Though we might get a lot of work done, depriving our bodies of sleep has quite the number of consequences on both the body and mind.

“When we are asleep, there are a lot of things going on in our brains,” said Dr. Laurel End, a psychology professor and chair for the psychology department. “In terms of memory, there’s memory consolidation being formed. When pulling an all-nighter, you’re not giving your brain a chance to lay down and remember the information that you’re studying.”

Dr. Lonergan-Cullum also said that a person will be less attentive and less able to retain new information when sleep deprived. Research has shown “decreased activity in the frontal and parietal lobes that might be important for attention processes,” Dr. Longergan-Cullum said.

In one study featured in Nature Neuroscience, scientists studied students who were sleep deprived. The study showed those that were sleep deprived had a lower level of activity in the hippocampus, which is important to the retaining new memories.

The hippocampus, shown in red, plays a large role in memory.

The hippocampus, shown in red, plays a large role in memory.


“They looked at their brain patterns, and people who had poor sleep patterns tend to forget twice as much as people who are good sleepers or have a goodnight sleep,” said Dr. Lonergan-Cullum.

“You’re also affecting your ability to concentrate. Sleep deprivation has an impact on concentration and focus,” said End. “So, you may feel confident that you know the material, but once you get to class, you might find it difficult accessing anything that you were able to commit to memory.”

Post all-nighter effects

  • difficulty concentrating or inability to focus
  • inability to learn new material
  • less attentive
  • more irritable
  • short term memory difficulty

The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are serious. Illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease have been linked to lack of sleep due to the stressors on the body that sleep deprivation brings.

“There’s been some interesting research that seems to indicate that sleep deprivation is linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s,” said End. “While we are asleep, toxins are removed from our brain.”

Lonergan-Cullum explained that plaques and waste products from creating the glucose that is needed to power your brain attaches to cells and other molecules, causing damage over time.

“During sleep, any sort of waste gets removed from the cells and the brain… Those that are susceptible to Alzheimer’s is that they aren’t getting those waste products, those enlarged proteins, removed because of the lack of sleep,” Lonergan-Cullum said.

When sleep is lacking, the waste products continue to build in the brain, contributing to Alzheimer’s.

Long term effects

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • stress on body
  • increased chance of Alzheimer’s
Learn more about the correlation between Alzheimer’s and sleep.

Can a Person Make Up Sleep?

We’ve all thought it before. If we stay up late one night, we could make up for the sleep we missed. Interestingly enough, our bodies can in fact do that in a phenomenon called the Rebound Effect.

“Even if you have been sleep deprived for one night, the next opportunity that you get to have a full night’s sleep… your brain and body concentrate on getting slow wave sleep and REM sleep,” said Dr. Lonergan-Cullum. “[In one night] you get 50 to 60 percent more sleep of those [slow wave sleep] stages.”

When you take naps to make up for lost sleep, you may notice that you always feel different when waking up, depending on the duration.

“If you’re in a super deep stage of sleep and you have to wake up, then you feel groggy and probably worse than if you had taken a shorter nap,” End said.

Sleep is detrimental to our development, our brains and our bodies. We are mistreating our bodies when we continue to skip out on proper sleep.

“Sleep is so important; not just now as students, but just as a way to protect your brain,” said Dr. Lonergan-Cullum.

What Affects Sleep?

Caffeine is a much talked about factor of both staying awake and falling asleep.

“Caffeine activates and works on adenosine receptors and adenosine works on the neural circuitry of sleep,” Lonergan-Cullum said.

Consuming caffeine is like fooling your internal circuits with temporary energy. Be wary of afternoon coffee.

To assist with sleep, Dr. Lonergan-Cullum suggested putting up heavy blinds on the windows to block off any light from the outside.

“For humans as a species, it’s more advantageous for us to sleep during the dark parts of the day because we are very visual animals,” said Lonergan-Cullum. “If it’s dark, we can’t see as well, and our ancestors would gather food during periods of light. So when it gets dark out, that’s a neural trigger to initiate the sleep process.”

One thing that you might not expect to affect sleep is the use of cellphones before bed.

“There has been newer research about not using your cellphones before bed because the blue light can keep you up longer,” said Dr. Lonergan-Cullum.

Dr. Laurel End’s Possible Pre-sleep Disruptors

  • exercise before bed
  • drinking alcohol
  • sleeping pills or similar substances
  • eating a lot of food
  • having the TV on



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