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Keywords:

  • executive function;
  • frontal cortex;
  • neurobehavioral performance;
  • perseveration;
  • random numbers;
  • sleepiness;
  • stimulants

Summary

Neurophysiological and functional imaging studies have demonstrated that frontal regions of the brain are particularly responsive to homeostatic sleep pressure. Previous neuropsychological studies indicate that sleep deprivation causes impairments in prefrontal cortical function. Random number generation (RNG) is thought to provide a sensitive index of executive functions that rely on the prefrontal cortex. The present study tested the hypothesis that sleep deprivation would impair RNG and that caffeine would mitigate this impairment. Healthy young men (n = 21) participated in two 40-h sleep deprivations 1 week apart. During each sleep deprivation period subjects received either caffeine or placebo according to a randomized, double-blind cross-over design, and they completed an oral RNG task at 3-h intervals. Comparison of test sessions at analogous times of day revealed that sleep deprivation was associated with significant drops in the number of responses, a threefold increase in the percentage of rule violations, 59% greater response redundancy and a 20% increase in stereotypy of adjacent response pairs. Sleep deprivation did not consistently alter counting tendency. Caffeine ameliorated the decrease in the number of responses but did not mitigate other deficits in RNG that arose during sleep deprivation. These findings are consistent with prior reports of diminished vigilance and increased perseveration during extended wakefulness. They support the conclusion that caffeine preserves simple aspects of cognitive performance during sleep deprivation, whereas caffeine may not prevent detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on some complex cognitive functions.