Sleep Deprivation, Humour, and Stimulants

From the June 2006 issue of the journal Sleep.

Sleep. 2006 Jun;29(6):841-7.
The effects of caffeine, dextroamphetamine, and modafinil on humor appreciation during sleep deprivation.
Killgore WD, McBride SA, Killgore DB, Balkin TJ.
Sleep loss consistently impairs performance on measures of alertness, vigilance, and response speed, but its effects on higher-order executive functions are not well delineated. Similarly, whereas deficits in arousal and vigilance can be temporarily countered by the use of several different stimulant medications, it is not clear how these compounds affect complex cognitive processes in sleep-deprived individuals.
We evaluated the effects of double-blind administration of 3 stimulant medications or placebo on the ability to appreciate humor in visual (cartoons) or verbal (headlines) stimuli presented on a computer screen following 49.5 hours of sleep deprivation.
In-residence sleep-laboratory facility at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Fifty-four healthy adults (29 men, 24 women), ranging in age from 18 to 36 years.
Each participant was randomly assigned to 1 of 3 stimulant medication groups, including caffeine, 600 mg, n = 12; modafinil, 400 mg, n = 11; dextroamphetamine, 20 mg, n = 16; or placebo, n = 14.
Humor appreciation for cartoon stimuli was enhanced by modafinil relative to both placebo and caffeine, but there was no effect of any stimulant medication on the appreciation of verbal humor during sleep loss. In contrast, all 3 stimulants improved psychomotor response speed, whereas only caffeine and dextroamphetamine improved ratings of subjective sleepiness.
Findings suggest that, despite similar alerting and vigilance-promoting effects, these 3 compounds have significantly different effects on those highly complex cognitive abilities mediated by the pre-frontal cortex.

via Discoblog

In isolation, this study seems to be pretty ridiculous. However if we put this publication into context, it makes a lot more sense.

A quick search on the primary author, WBS Kilgore, we learn that he has quite a number of neuroscience based articles many of which are related to stimulants and sleep deprivation. We also learn that he conducts much of his research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) “the largest and most diverse biomedical research laboratory in the Department of Defense.” It all comes together.

Here we have a researcher studying various aspects of sleep deprivation and stimulant use from a military perspective. It’s not difficult to see how this has direct applications in both combat and non-combat settings for military personnel and civilians. There are many professions from ER physicians to farmers who are required to spend extremely long hours at work. The consequences of sleep deprivation have implications on their own behaviour and mental acuity, as well as the safety of others and even their personal and professional relationships.

At some point in our lives, nearly all of us have used some sort of stimulant in an attempt to improve our mental and/or physical performance while sleep deprived. Writing papers or studying in school, long distance driving, finishing a work project are all examples of instances of increased consumption of caffeine consumption in one of its common forms: coffee, tea, soft drinks, or pills. We don’t even think about the consequences because for most of us, we can just catch up on our sleep over the next few days. In some professions, the sleep deprivation is chronic and gaining an understanding of stimulant use becomes an important area of research.

This simple example demonstrates the difficulty of political interference in the types of research that are carried out. A cursory look at an abstract or even an isolated paper can give a very distorted view of the value of a particular line of research.

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