May 1, 2012

One of the most disconcerting things to see as you are wheeled into surgery is your surgeon yawning. The worry is not that the surgeon will fall asleep during the procedure; it is that the surgeon is not at his or her best. We assume that a sleepy surgeon is more likely to make a mistake, like wrong-site surgery or nicking an artery, but, according to a study in the American Journal of Surgery, that is not actually the case.

The study involved training medical students on specific tasks. Half of the group then got a full night’s sleep, while the other half got just two hours of sleep. When they repeated the tasks, the results were the same: The sleep-deprived students performed the tasks as well as they had the day before. They also were able to learn a new task just as well as they had when fully rested.

What was different, though, was the cognitive workload of the sleep-deprived group. Using a tool developed by NASA, the researchers were able to measure how difficult a task was for the study participants. They found that the sleep-deprived group had to work harder to accomplish the tasks.

At first glance, this isn’t a surprise. Of course our brains work harder when we don’t get enough sleep. The surprise is that the outcome was the same: Sleep deprivation increased the cognitive workloads and the students performed tasks they knew and learned new tasks just as successfully as they had with a full night’s sleep.

Other studies say this shouldn’t be the case. If the brain is stressed, performance suffers: There is a greater risk that a surgeon will make a mistake, especially if something unexpected occurs during surgery.

The results are not reason to toss out all the existing studies, though. The researchers recommend more work in the area of cognitive workload and sleep deprivation.

Source: Penn State Hershey, “Sleepiness may affect surgeons’ ability to deal with the unexpected,” May 2012


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