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Brain Activity Differs Between Early Birds and Night Owls

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Brain Activity Differs Between Early Birds and Night Owls

Post by Taalibah on Sun Apr 26, 2009 9:47 pm

Brain Activity Differs Between Early Birds and Night Owls

The early bird gets the worm but loses focus and alertness far faster than the night owl, who enjoys productive endurance. People who keep late hours and feel more alert in the evening may have a natural advantage over those who rise at the crack of dawn and struggle to stay alert and productive in the later hours of the day.

People are inclined to prefer mornings or nights based in part on their reaction to the battle between the circadian hormones that keep us alert during waking hours and the physiological sleep pressure that makes us feel increasingly more drowsy as the waking hours pass. While early birds experience a drop in daytime alertness by mid to late afternoon, night owls seem to handle sleep pressure better and can remain productive for a much longer period of time. This information is based on a new study recently published in the journal Science.

A group of scientists led by Christina Schmidt of the University of Liège in Belgium monitored the brain activity of 15 night owls and 16 early birds while they spent two nights in a sleep lab. The team also took hourly saliva samples from the participants to measure their melatonin levels, as melatonin is a hormone believed to regulate the body’s sleep cycle.

All of the study participants were allowed to remain on their preferred sleep schedules, with the two groups having about a four-hour difference in general sleep patterns. An early riser who started the day at 7:00 a.m. would be ready for bed by 11:00 p.m. while a late starter may sleep until 11:00 a.m. and stay up until 3:00 a.m., although each group was awake for approximately the same number of hours each day. No matter what their sleep schedules were, at 90 minutes after waking, and again at 10.5 hours after waking, the brain activity of the participants was measured by fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) while they took a reaction time test of their ability to maintain focused attention.

During the test given at 90 minutes post-waking, both groups scored about the same. However, during the test given at 10.5 hours post-waking, a reduction in brain activity in areas associated with attention was observed among the early birds. In addition, they felt sleepy and demonstrated slow performance on their tests. As it got later in the day, the early risers also exhibited less brain activity in the region involved with the circadian master clock that regulates alertness.

In stark contrast, the late risers did not experience any sluggishness and remained fully alert. Study co-author, Philippe Peigneux, said, “If we have found what can appear as an advantage for evening types, it’s that they are able to perform well after 10.5 hours spent awake, and that they’re able to outperform morning types.”

However, late-night people may not fare so well outside of the lab. According to Peigneux, “Morning types may be at an advantage, because their schedule is fitting better with the usual work schedule of the society.” He also added, “It may represent a problem for evening types obliged to wake up early while having difficulties going to bed in the evening, eventually leading to a sleep debt.” In addition, early risers experience a faster dissipation of sleep pressure when they do sleep and they feel restored more quickly than late night people.

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