Can a Lack of Sleep Kill You?

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“Have you forgotten so easily?” the subject asked. “We are you. We are the madness that lurks within you all, begging to be free at every moment in your deepest animal mind. We are what you hide from in your beds every night. We are what you sedate into silence and paralysis when you go to the nocturnal haven where we cannot tread.”

Surviving participant from ‘The Russian Sleep Experiment’ in the late 1940s. This volunteer went 15 days without sleep.

Before you start looking over your shoulder for the demonic presence presented above, don’t be alarmed. The quote above is from a piece of horror fiction from a website called Creepy Pasta and is completely fake. I hope.

I wanted to start with this as Halloween is fast approaching and I thought that a more fiendish sleep myth was worth looking at. Can a lack of sleep be directly responsible for your death?

A complete lack of sleep is something new parents and those of us with upcoming deadlines may know all too well. It’s draining, depressing, and leaves us eyeing up any available floor space as prime real-estate for your exhausted brain and body.

We have already looked at the effects of getting too little or too much sleep in my earlier post, but not the more extreme side of this. Research conducted with animals at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century suggests that not only is sleep important, but that it is vital for sustaining life. In experiments which looked at puppies, cats and rats, it was found that after anything from a few days to around a month of no to very little sleep would lead to death in these animals. This should be taken with a pinch of salt as animals tend to have to be forced to stay awake, and this is typically through stressful contraptions.

How about humans though? What is the longest any one has gone without sleep and gone on to tell the tale?

Well there are two main sources which we can look at. Firstly, there are the people who have willingly deprived themselves of sleep and secondly we can look at people who no longer sleep. Starting with those strange souls who willingly deprive themselves of shut-eye we can look towards a reality TV-show, our trusty sleep-deprived student population, and a couple of radio DJs to start to answer this question.

People are seemingly keen to show off their endurance when it comes to neglecting or overindulging in the necessities of life. Some will do it to win a fabulous prize and others because… Well I’m sure they know why they do it. Anyway, one such contest is relevant here.

The reality TV show ‘Shattered’ provided contestants a chance to win £100,000. All they had to do was be the last one standing in a competition to stay awake the longest. The show was screened on channel 4 in 2004 and its questionable premise didn’t put off a group of eager participants keen to deprive themselves of sleep for fame and glory. The winner stayed awake ultimately for 178 hours. The show capped the length of time participants could remain awake for, and a number of increasingly soporific tasks eventually weeded out one overall victor. If you are interested in this ‘experiment’ you can watch it here.

However, 178 hours was meagre compared to the next contenders. It seems that at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s there was a surge in radio DJs attempting to promote themselves and further their careers in bizarre ways. Collectively they felt that staying awake and parading their increasingly fatigued selves in a department store window was the way to do this.

Our first member of the media to tackle a lack of sleep was a young radio announcer referred to as W.A. He managed to stay awake for a total of 220 hours or just over 9 days. Previously, another radio DJ by the name of Peter Tripp had managed to last 201 hours without sleep. Finally, our last radio DJ, Tom Rounds, shortly after moving to Honolulu in 1959, managed to stay awake for 260 hours and appeared to suffer no long-term effects of his sleep deprivation.

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Is sleep necessary for sustaining life?

However, their collective records did not last long. The radio DJs were swiftly beaten in 1964 by the efforts of a student called Randy Gardener. Randy was a 17 years old student who felt that he could provide something more interesting than a papier-mâché volcano to present at his school’s science fair. He went without sleep for 264.4 hours, which equates to about 11 days and 24 minutes, and supposedly suffered no long-term problems. The often cited report claims that Randy suffered no ill effects of his experiment, yet others claim he experienced hallucinations, paranoia, fluctuations in mood, and problems in short term memory and concentration. The latter would fit with what we know about acute sleep disturbances (Petrovsky et al. 2014; Kahn-Greene et al., 2007).

Interesting, there have been reports of others having seemingly beaten Randy’s record and by a sizeable margin. These have not been validated in part due to scientists and those responsible for recording ‘world records’ not wanting to encourage these record attempts. For example, the Guinness Book of World Records no longer prints updates to the sleep deprivation record since Randy Gardener.

Okay, so far it looks like we can go a long time without sleep and survive. This seems to suggest that although we need sleep (try not sleeping tonight if you’re not convinced), an acute loss is not going to be directly responsible for your demise (but likely indirectly).

Let’s move to the second source of human sleep loss evidence now: those who no longer possess the ability to sleep.

We’ve already looked at people who for one reason or another have decided to willingly deprive themselves of sleep. Yet, for some the ability to sleep is lost. Although insomnia fits this bill, in this case we are referring to the rare genetic brain disease known as Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). As the name suggests, this disease is associated with a prolonged and severe insomnia which ultimately leads to death. There are some experimental treatments to delay the fatal consequences but these may only provide a couple of extra years at best.

Fatal familial insomnia is a prion disease. Prions are misfolded proteins that cause damage to the brain as they clump together. In the case of FFI, these prions clump at a specific part of the brain known as the thalamus. The thalamus plays a prominent role in regulating sleep and in coordinating the brain as it drifts deeper and deeper in somnolence. As a result, as the damage to the thalamus accumulates this unsurprisingly leads to worsening insomnia.

These individuals seemingly sleep very little or not at all and will survive from a few months to about several years following the presentation of symptoms. The course of this illness would suggest that it is possible to die from sleep deprivation, at least at extreme durations. However, we can’t say that it is the complete lack of sleep alone which kills those with FFI as damage to the thalamus affects other functions rather than just sleep. Moreover, as this disease is so rare that it would be wrong to make a firm conclusion based on this alone. More likely, it seems that the lack of sleep contributes significantly, but not completely, to the decline of those with this illness.

So, what’s the verdict on sleep deprivation being capable of deadly consequences?

The research in animals suggests it can be but the human studies tell another story. Although common myths and horror stories might like to toy with our inbuilt fears about the unknown, it looks like a lack of sleep will not directly lead to your death. Instead, the host of effects already covered may be the true driver between mortality and sleep loss.

Inquisitive Tortoise

References:

Luby, E. D., Frohman, C. E., Grisell, J. L., Lenzo, J. E., & Gottlieb, J. S. (1960). Sleep deprivation: effects on behavior, thinking, motor performance, and biological energy transfer systems. Psychosomatic Medicine, 22(3), 182-192.

Petrovsky, N., Ettinger, U., Hill, A., Frenzel, L., Meyhöfer, I., Wagner, M., … & Kumari, V. (2014). Sleep deprivation disrupts prepulse inhibition and induces psychosis-like symptoms in healthy humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(27), 9134-9140.

** http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Russian_Sleep_Experiment

**In case you find yourself wanting to read the rest of the fictitious foray into the effects of sleep deprivation.

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Filed under General Interest, Literature, Media, Psychology, Sleep Science

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