Individual differences in cognitive vulnerability to fatigue in the laboratory and in the workplace

Prog Brain Res. 2011;190:145-53. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53817-8.00009-8.


Individual differences in cognitive functioning during extended work hours and shift work are of considerable magnitude, and observed both in the laboratory and in the workplace. These individual differences have a biological basis in trait-like, differential vulnerability to fatigue from sleep loss and circadian misalignment. Trait-like vulnerability is predicted in part by gene polymorphisms and other biological or psychological characteristics, but for the larger part it remains unexplained. A complicating factor is that whether individuals are vulnerable or resilient to sleep deprivation depends on the fatigue measure considered--subjective versus objective assessment, or one cognitive task versus another. Such dissociation has been observed in laboratory data published previously, and in data from a simulated operational setting first presented here. Discordance between subjective and objective measures of fatigue has been documented in various contexts, and may be one of the reasons why vulnerable individuals do not systematically opt out of professions involving high cognitive demands and exposure to fatigue. Discordance in vulnerability to fatigue among different measures of cognitive performance may be related to the "task impurity problem," which implies that interrelated cognitive processes involved in task performance must be distinguished before overall performance outcomes can be fully understood. Experimental studies and cognitive and computational modeling approaches are currently being employed to address the task impurity problem and gain new insights into individual vulnerability to fatigue across a wide range of cognitive tasks. This ongoing research is driving progress in the management of risks to safety and productivity associated with vulnerability to cognitive impairment from fatigue in the workplace.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Fatigue / etiology
  • Fatigue / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Laboratories*
  • Sleep Deprivation / complications
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Work Schedule Tolerance
  • Workplace*