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See Inside September / October 2009

Early Risers Crash Faster Than People Who Stay Up Late

Night owls belie slacker reputation by staying alert longer



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Early birds may get the best worms—or at least the best garage sale deals—but they also tire out more quickly than night owls do. In a new study researchers Christina Schmidt and Philippe Peigneux, both at the University of Liège in Belgium, and their colleagues first asked 16 extreme early risers and 15 extreme night owls to spend a week following their natural sleep schedule. Then subjects spent two nights in a sleep lab, where they again followed their preferred sleep patterns and underwent cognitive testing twice daily while in a functional MRI scanner.

An hour and a half after waking, early birds and night owls were equally alert and showed no difference in attention-related brain activity. But after being awake for 10 and a half hours, night owls had grown more alert, performing better on a reaction-time task requiring sustained attention and showing increased activity in brain areas linked to attention. More important, these regions included the suprachiasmatic area, which is home to the body’s circadian clock. This area sends signals to boost alertness as the pressure to sleep mounts. Unlike night owls, early risers didn’t get this late-day lift. Peigneux says faster activation of sleep pressure appears to prevent early birds from fully benefiting from the circadian signal, as evening types do.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Early Risers Crash Faster."

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