New insights into the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation by decomposition of a cognitive throughput task

Sleep. 2020 Jul 13;43(7):zsz319. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsz319.


Study objectives: A cognitive throughput task known as the Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST) (or Symbol Digit Modalities Test) has been used as an assay of general cognitive slowing during sleep deprivation. Here, the effects of total sleep deprivation (TSD) on specific cognitive processes involved in DSST performance, including visual search, spatial memory, paired-associate learning, and motor response, were investigated through targeted task manipulations.

Methods: A total of 12 DSST variants, designed to manipulate the use of specific cognitive processes, were implemented in two laboratory-based TSD studies with N = 59 and N = 26 subjects, respectively. In each study, the Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT) was administered alongside the DSST variants.

Results: TSD reduced cognitive throughput on all DSST variants, with response time distributions exhibiting rightward skewing. All DSST variants showed practice effects, which were however minimized by inclusion of a pause between trials. Importantly, TSD-induced impairment on the DSST variants was not uniform, with a principal component analysis revealing three factors. Diffusion model decomposition of cognitive processes revealed that inter-individual differences during TSD on a two-alternative forced choice DSST variant were different from those on the PVT.

Conclusions: While reduced cognitive throughput has been interpreted to reflect general cognitive slowing, such TSD-induced impairment appears to reflect cognitive instability, like on the PVT, rather than general slowing. Further, comparisons between task variants revealed not one, but three distinct underlying processes impacted by sleep deprivation. Moreover, the practice effect on the task was found to be independent of the TSD effect and minimized by a task pacing manipulation.

Keywords: Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST); Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT); Symbol Digit Modalities Test (SDMT); cognitive processing; diffusion model; response time; task performance; total sleep deprivation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Reaction Time
  • Sleep Deprivation*
  • Wakefulness