How can someone stay awake for 11 days?

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Tony Wright seemed to handle 264-plus hours of sleeplessness without significant adverse effects, but doctors strongly recommended that no one try such an experiment on his own. Long-term sleep deprivation can cause vision problems, hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, difficulty communicating or understanding others, a compromised immune system and depression.

There's also the question of why anyone would want to stay awake for 11 days. Wright claims that he was researching the effects of sleep on the body and that he wanted to "bring attention to changing variables in human lifestyle" [source: BBC]. But some scientists have criticized his effort. Dr. Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, said that "unless it is properly conducted with equipment to monitor brain activity and to prove the subject is awake, studies like this add little" [source: The Scotsman]. Dr. Irdzikowski told the BBC that Wright's theory about switching from one side of the brain to the other could only be verified by monitoring brain activity, and that someone participating in a self-conducted sleep deprivation experiment may nod off for short periods without even realizing it [source: BBC]. In fact, on day seven, Wright wrote on his blog that some Webcam viewers had become concerned that he had fallen asleep (or worse) because he appeared to be sitting still. Wright claimed that he was "merely pondering one's creative insights (or in this case lack of them)" [source: BBC]. Whether he had unknowingly nodded off cannot be confirmed.

Problems can arise even from small bouts of sleeplessness. Twenty-four hours without sleep can produce as much impairment as being legally drunk. Consequently, sleep deprivation is a major contributor in car accidents and may have contributed to disasters such as the explosion at Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez crash. Sleep deprivation is also a major concern for people who work long hours (such as doctors and night-shift employees) and for anyone suffering from sleep apnea, which causes high blood pressure, stress and low oxygen levels in the blood. Repeated sleep deprivation can increase your appetite and lead to weight gain.

A new group of drugs aims to eliminate the side effects of short-term sleep deprivation. Called eugeroics, these stimulants promise to boost cognitive performance after 36 or more hours without sleep. Some of these drugs have been used to treat narcolepsy. Their manufacturers, pending FDA approval, hope to adapt them for other purposes, such as allowing people to get by on a few hours of sleep a night or to put in extra-long shifts. Whether these drugs represent the future of how people live and work -- and let's hope they don't -- remains to be seen. They certainly don't replace sleep, and their effects, especially after long-term use, need to be studied closely.

Of course, sleep is a very important function. While we sleep, our muscles and cells rest and rejuvenate, which allows the brain to "archive" memories and improving cognitive function during waking hours. Most adults manage well on seven to eight hours, although some public figures, such as Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, have boasted of sleeping only four hours a night or less. All animals have to sleep, too. Giraffes sleep less than two hours a day, while pythons snooze through three-fourths of the day. In the end -- for humans, at least -- it depends on the individual's needs. As babies we often sleep up to 20 hours a day, but by old age, we may be getting by on six or seven.

For more information about sleep deprivation, how sleep works and a link to Tony Wright's blog, please browse the links below.

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  • Ellenbogen, Jeffrey M. "Cognitive benefits of sleep and their loss due to sleep deprivation. " Neurology, 2005.
  • Hayden, Thomas. "The Future of Work: You Snooze, You Lose." Popular Science. March 2007. 52526a4a1b801110vgnvcm1000004eecbccdrcrd.html
  • Horsnell, Michael. "Man who stayed up for 266 hours awakes to bad news." The Times, May 26, 2007. news/uk/health/article1842716.ece
  • "Record in Sleeplessness." AHN. May 26, 2007.
  • Moss, Lyndsay. "11 sleepless nights set new world record but why risk your health?" Scotsman. May 26, 2007.
  • Wright, Tony. "Sleep Deprivation Diary." BBC. 2007/05/15/ aboutcornwall_sleeplessdiary_feature.shtml
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  • "Sleepless in Penzance."