DEC 20, 2017 6:35 PM PST

Gene Variant Impacts How Well we Cope with Sleep Deprivation

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

How well do you function after a miserable night’s sleep? A genetic variant may be having a significant impact on that scenario. Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have identified a variation in the DRD2 gene that influences how well people performed on tasks requiring cognitive flexibility when they are sleep deprived. Publishing in Scientific Reports, the investigators showed that people with a specific change in DRD2 did better, while people with one of two other variations did poorly when having to make decisions based on changing information. Check out a video outlining the work.

"Our work shows that there are people who are resilient to the effects of sleep deprivation when it comes to cognitive flexibility. Surprisingly these same people are just as affected as everyone else on other tasks that require different cognitive abilities, such as maintaining focus," explained the lead author of the work, Paul Whitney, a WSU Professor of Psychology. "This confirms something we have long suspected, namely that the effects of sleep deprivation are not general in nature, but rather depend on the specific task and the genes of the person performing the task."

The DRD2 gene codes for the dopamine receptor D2, which has a role in how information is processed by the striatum. That part of the brain is known to influence cognitive flexibility.

For this research, Whitney worked with John Hinson, a WSU Professor of Psychology, and Hans Van Dongen, the Director of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane. They compared how people that carry different DRD2 genes performed on tasks that tested their ability to anticipate events as well as their cognitive flexibility in response to circumstances that were changing.

Researcher sets up for an experiment at the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane. / Credit: WSU

"Our research shows this particular gene influences a person's ability to mentally change direction when given new information," Van Dongen said. "Some people are protected from the effects of sleep deprivation by this particular gene variation but, for most of us, sleep loss does something to the brain that simply prevents us from switching gears when circumstances change."

Because sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on cognition, there can be severe consequences for some people. The researchers now want to know how they can assist those who are frequently subjected to sleep deprivation by their occupations. Surgeons, soldiers, and police officers, for example, all have to cope with the impacts of sleep deprivation, and their jobs often require an ability to think quickly in response to dynamic situations.

"Our long-term goal is to be able to train people so that no matter what their genetic composition is, they will be able to recognize and respond appropriately to changing scenarios, and be less vulnerable to sleep loss," Whitney said. "Of course, the more obvious solution is to just get some sleep, but in a lot of real-world situations, we don't have that luxury."

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! Via WSU, Scientific Reports

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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