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Sleep Deprivation Can Threaten Competent Decision-making

May 1, 2007

Gambling is a risky activity that can potentially result in the loss of a significant amount of money. A study published in the journal SLEEP finds that sleep deprivation can adversely affect a person's decision-making at a gambling table by elevating the expectation of gains and making light of one's losses following risky decisions.

To understand the neural underpinnings of risky decision making under conditions of sleep deprivation, Vinod Venkatraman and colleagues of Duke University studied healthy volunteers as they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the use of MRI to measure the haemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord of humans.

The authors found that the nucleus accumbens, an area in the brain involved with the anticipation of reward, becomes selectively more active when high risk-high payoff choices were made under conditions of sleep deprivation. Further, the number of high risk decisions did not increase with sleep deprivation, but the expectation of being rewarded for making the high risk gamble was elevated. Allied to this finding was the observation that there was an attenuated response to losses in the insula, a part of the brain involved with evaluating the emotional significance of an event.

According to the authors, the new findings build on prior research that has shown that sleep-deprived participants choose higher-risk decks and exhibit reduced concern for negative consequences when performing a variant of the Iowa Gambling Task. While well-rested participants learn to avoid high-risk decks and to choose from the advantageous decks, sleep-deprived participants tend to continue to choose from the risky decks as the game progresses.

Michael W.L. Chee, one of the authors of the study, noted that disadvantageous decisions were not actually made, but the brain showed response patterns suggesting that going down that path might be the next step. Herein lies the added value of brain imaging -- potentially being able to foretell the likelihood of making disadvantageous decisions, added Chee.

"Most of us know of people who have stayed up all night on a gambling table, taking crazy risks that did not make sense and who lost more than they had because they did not walk out when it was sensible to," said Chee. "Understanding why we make poorer choices when sleep deprived is important not only because of the increasing numbers of persons affected, but also because there exist today unprecedented opportunities to incur damaging losses by means such as online gambling. This work is one of many evaluating the neural correlates of decision making but the first to apply such methods to sleep deprived individuals."

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