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[whitespace] Hard Day's Nights

Under pressure to put in long hours, even day workers are short on sleep

By Dara Colwell

WITH THE ADVENT OF nonstop stock markets, longer working hours and the unsleeping Internet, more and more workers are having their workday stretched and their sleeping time shortened. "The downturn of the economy in the 1980s fostered the idea of being flexible at work," says UC-Berkeley sociology professor Kim Voss. "The more flexible you were with your work schedule, the more likely you were to be kept on. As the economy improved," she continues, "the ability to work 24 hours a day became built in. Now that has become the mark of a good professional."

Sleep deprivation, used as a torture method during the Spanish Inquisition, can have serious, cumulative effects: mood deterioration, increased appetite and sexual drive, severe fatigue, elevated pain sensitivity, paranoia.

In 1959, disc jockey Peter Tripp stationed himself for 200 sleepless hours in a booth in Times Square to raise money for the March of Dimes. Throughout this effort, researchers monitored Tripp, who began experiencing serious hallucinations and acute paranoia after four to five days. Tripp heard suspicious sounds, became convinced that "enemies" were drugging his food, and refused to cooperate on performance tests.

While not much is known about the sleepy brain, studies conducted by UC-San Diego psychiatrist Christian Gillin show that key portions of the exhausted brain compensate by working harder to solve simple verbal problems. When it comes to simple arithmetic problems, the brain appears to stall completely.

Understanding how sleep-regulating hormones work in the brain comes, surprisingly, from experiments on canine narcolepsy. Last year, Emmanuel Mignot, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, discovered that human narcoleptics lacked hypocretin, a hormone that tells the brain when to stay awake. In narcoleptic dogs, only the receptor is missing, so when injected with hypocretin, the animals improve. Narcolepsy, Mignot says, does not genetically run in families. Instead, something destroys the hormone later in life. "The implications [of the discovery] are much broader than narcolepsy," he says. "It's not yet established, but it could turn out to be important in designing new medication for those who have trouble falling asleep."

On a broader societal level, according to sleep researcher Roger Broughton, 90 percent of people in modern industrialized societies suffer from chronic "sleep debt."

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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