An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WSU Researchers To Examine Decision Making While Tired

Washington State University

Washington State University sleep researchers are keeping plenty busy this summer.

Three weeks ago we told you about a new study into whether nurses who work 12-hour shifts, especially overnight, become too fatigued to safely do their jobs.

Now, Professor Hans Van Dongen is leading a team that has a received a new Defense Department grant — $2.8 million — to study this question.

“Why is it that people make, when they’re sleep deprived, make bad decisions, but not all the time? What is it about some decisions that go wrong when people are fatigued and other decisions that are not problematic? Why is it that people can, for most of us, can do most of our work just fine when we’re fatigued and we still show up for work every day and we still, for the large part, do our work just fine?" Van Dongen said. 

"But occasionally we make a really big mistake in our decision making that has far-reaching implications and it sort of comes out of nowhere," he said. "For a long time, we didn’t understand what it was about, those sorts of mistakes that we make in decision making or otherwise, that’s at the heart of that problem. So we didn’t really know what in the brain actually goes wrong.”

When we’re doing a task while we’re tired, sometimes we’ve done it so often that it’s routine and we just rely on experience and muscle memory and get it done, even though we might feel brain dead. Here’s an example.

“If you’re at a door and it says ‘pull’ and you push and it won’t open, you might notice it if you’re sleep deprived. You keep pushing it until at some point you just give up and go find another door, whereas all you really needed to do was is pull that door, right?" Van Dongen said.

"Now you have to change your perspective and what happens is the brain needs to switch from what we call proactive attention or control, knowing exactly what you want to do, to reactive attention or control, taking a step back, reevaluating the situation, taking in new information, making a new plan, and switching to another alternative strategy to get your work done. And we’ve shown in the past that the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain are particularly strong when it has to deal with that switching from proactive to reactive attention and control,” he said.

So they’re studying what happens in the brain when those switches are happening. A technical term for that is cognitive flexibility. Van Dongen wants to know why some people can make those switches without it affecting their performance, while others can’t. What happens differently in their brains?

Some people, when they’re pooped, load up on caffeine to keep them awake and alert.

“Ok, so with caffeine, I can increase my alertness, but maybe or maybe not, that cognitive flexibility problem. And there’s some evidence that caffeine is not so great at that, even though it keeps us awake enough to maybe make it home safely on the drive home, but we could still make a really bad financial decision and ruin our life some other way," Van Dongen said.

"If you switch out caffeine for some other drug, do you subsequently see that maybe that’s not so great for the drive home, but it’s actually much better for my decision making? And if that turns out to be the case, can we subsequently design a drug that will give us all we need?” he said.

Van Dongen and his colleagues will recruit 90 people to contrast how their brains make that switch when they’re tired versus when they’re fully rested. The participants will spend a few days in the sleep lab on the WSU Spokane campus. The first night they’ll get a chance to fully rest; the next day they’ll do a series of activities. The next night they’ll be kept awake and do the same set of activities the following day. The two performances will be contrasted. They’ll also do the same protocol on mice or rats.

“What we can do with rats is, they give us the ability to look much more precisely inside what’s going on in the brain. And we don’t necessarily have to go into the brain literally," Van Dongen said. 

"One of the new advances that has come across recently is the use of optigenetics, which is basically the use of laser light to activate particular genes and by using this technology, we can stimulate neurons in the brain of a rat or a mouse, to activate pieces of the brain that we want to see what happens when these pieces of the brain are activated,” he said.

Van Dongen says that process does not harm the animals, but it helps researchers pinpoint where there are brain activities. He says rat brains and human brains are similar enough in this regard that there’s value to experimenting on both.

The new grant covers a three-year period. If all goes well, Van Dongen says researchers could wind up — somewhere down the line — working with WSU’s College of Pharmacy to design a drug that would help people who are fatigued make better decisions.