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Pulling consecutive all-nighters makes some brain areas groggier. Problem solving and concentration become sluggish when sleep-deprived.

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The findings, published in Sciencedocument the brain’s response to too little shut-eye.

Activity in some brain areas, such as the thalamus, a central hub that connects many other structures, waxed and waned in sync with the circadian clock. But in other areas, especially those in the brain’s outer layer, the effects of this master clock were overridden by the body’s drive to sleep. Brain activity diminished in these regions as sleep debt mounted, the scans showed.

Sleep deprivation also meddled with the participants’ performance on simple tasks, effects influenced both by the mounting sleep debt and the cycles of the master clock. Performance suffered in the night, but improved somewhat during the second day, even after no sleep.  

While the brain’s circadian clock signal is known to originate in a cluster of nerve cells known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, it isn’t clear where the drive to sleep comes from, says Charles Czeisler, a sleep expert at Harvard Medical School. The need to sleep might grow as toxic metabolites build up after a day’s worth of brain activity, or be triggered when certain regions run out of fuel.

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