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Study: Relying on caffeine after sleep deprivation can lead to procedural errors

Researchers found sleep-deprived study participants could complete simple tasks while running on caffeine, but were impaired with more complex tasks

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Michigan State University researchers found that those who rely on caffeine when sleep deprived may be impaired while performing complex procedural tasks.

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By Laura French

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A recent study by Michigan researchers found that relying on caffeine after a night of sleep deprivation can cause errors while completing certain tasks.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Phsychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, found that sleep-deprived study participants who consumed caffeine were able to complete simple attention tasks, but showed impairment while completing more challenging “placekeeping” tasks involving the completion of tasks in a specific order without skipping or repeating steps, according to a Michigan State University (MSU) news release.

The study was conducted at the MSU Sleep and Learning Lab and involved more than 275 participants. Kimberly Fenn, lead researcher and associate professor of psychology at MSU, said the study was the first of its kind to investigate the effects of caffeine on placekeeping tasks after sleep deprivation.

“Caffeine may improve the ability to stay awake and attend to a task, but it doesn’t do much to prevent the sort of procedural errors that can cause things like medical mistakes or car accidents,” Fenn said in a statement.

Fenn said the study demonstrates the importance of getting sufficient sleep and shows that caffeine is not a proper replacement for a full night of sleep.

“Although people may feel as if they can combat sleep deprivation with caffeine, their performance on higher-level tasks will likely still be impaired. This is one of the reasons why sleep deprivation can be so dangerous,” Fenn stated. “If we had found that caffeine significantly reduced procedural errors under conditions of sleep deprivation, this would have broad implications for individuals who must perform high stakes procedures with insufficient sleep, like surgeons, pilots and police officers. Instead, our findings underscore the importance of prioritizing sleep.”