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Keywords:

  • decision making;
  • executive function;
  • gambling;
  • prefrontal cortex;
  • risk taking;
  • sleep deprivation

Summary

Sleep deprivation reduces regional cerebral metabolism within the prefrontal cortex, the brain region most responsible for higher-order cognitive processes, including judgment and decision making. Accordingly, we hypothesized that two nights of sleep loss would impair decision making quality and lead to increased risk-taking behavior on the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), which mimics real-world decision making under conditions of uncertainty. Thirty-four healthy participants completed the IGT at rested baseline and again following 49.5 h of sleep deprivation. At baseline, volunteers performed in a manner similar to that seen in most samples of healthy normal individuals, rapidly learning to avoid high-risk decks and selecting more frequently from advantageous low-risk decks as the game progressed. After sleep loss, however, volunteers showed a strikingly different pattern of performance. Relative to rested baseline, sleep-deprived individuals tended to choose more frequently from risky decks as the game progressed, a pattern similar to, though less severe than, previously published reports of patients with lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Although risky decision making was not related to participant age when tested at rested baseline, age was negatively correlated with advantageous decision making on the IGT, when tested following sleep deprivation (i.e. older subjects made more risky choices). These findings suggest that cognitive functions known to be mediated by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, including decision making under conditions of uncertainty, may be particularly vulnerable to sleep loss and that this vulnerability may become more pronounced with increased age.