Introduction: Chronic nocturnal sleep restriction results in accumulation of neurobehavioral impairment across days. The purpose of this study was to determine whether time of day modulates the effects of sleep restriction on objective daytime performance deficits and subjective sleepiness across days of chronic sleep restriction.
Methods: There were N = 90 healthy adults (21-49 yr; 38 women) who participated in a 14-d laboratory protocol involving randomization to 1 of 18 schedules of restricted nocturnal sleep with and without a diurnal nap for 10 consecutive days. The total time available for daily sleep ranged from 4.2 h to 8.2 h across conditions. Performance lapses on the psychomotor vigilance test (PVT) and subjective sleepiness were measured each day every 2 h during scheduled wakefulness. Nonlinear mixed-effects regression was used to test the hypothesis that there would be an interaction between time of day and the accumulation (slope across days) of neurobehavioral sleepiness.
Results: In agreement with earlier studies, less sleep time resulted in faster accumulation of deficits across days. Time of day significantly affected this relationship for both PVT lapses and subjective sleepiness. The build-up rate of cumulative neurobehavioral deficits across days was largest at 0800 and became progressively smaller across the hours of the day, especially between 1600 and 2000. Following 8 d of sleep restricted to 4 h/d, subjects averaged 8.3 more PVT performance lapses at 0800 than at 1800.
Discussion: This study provides evidence that the circadian system has a substantial modulatory effect on cumulative impairment from chronic sleep restriction and that it facilitates a period of relatively protected alertness in the late afternoon/early evening hours when nocturnal sleep is chronically restricted.