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New blood test can detect when someone has not slept in the past 24 hours

Scientists have developed a blood test capable of accurately determining if an individual has been awake for over 24 hours, utilizing a unique combination of blood markers to detect sleep deprivation with remarkable precision.

In controlled laboratory settings, the test, developed by researchers from Monash University in Australia and the University of Birmingham in the UK, demonstrated a 99.2% accuracy rate in distinguishing between rested and sleep-deprived states. Although accuracy dips slightly to 89.1% in the absence of a rested baseline for comparison, the test’s efficacy remains impressively high.

Detecting sleep deprivation with a blood test

This advancement is particularly significant given the global concern over sleep deprivation’s role in approximately 20% of road accidents. The development of this biomarker opens the door to potential applications in quickly identifying sleep-deprived drivers, thereby enhancing road safety.

Furthermore, it holds promise for use in various safety-critical environments, where the consequences of fatigue can be dire.

Professor Clare Anderson, who spearheaded this research at Monash University before joining the University of Birmingham, emphasized the test’s potential impact.

“This is a really exciting discovery for sleep scientists, and could be transformative to the future management of health and safety relating to insufficient sleep,” Professor Anderson said.

“While more work is required, this is a promising first step. There is strong evidence that less than five hours’ sleep is associated with unsafe driving, but driving after 24 hours awake, which is what we detected here, would be at least comparable to more than double the Australian legal limit of alcohol performance wise,” Anderson explained further.

Significance and real-world applications

Highlighting the gravity of operating a vehicle or machinery without adequate rest, the study draws parallels between severe sleep deprivation and the impairment levels seen with significant alcohol consumption.

Dr. Katy Jeppe, a key contributor to the study, noted the challenges of bringing this test to a practical, real-world application, such as post-accident analysis.

“Next steps would be to test it in a less controlled environment and maybe under forensic conditions, particularly if it was to be used as evidence for crashes involving drivers falling asleep,” Dr Jeppe said.

“Given it’s blood, the test is more limited in a roadside context, but future work could examine whether our metabolites, and therefore the biomarker, are evident in saliva or breath,” she posited.

The biomarker’s current configuration is designed to detect wakefulness periods extending beyond 24 hours, with the capability to identify sleep deprivation down to 18 hours. The possibility of developing a test for shorter periods of sleep deprivation or limited sleep quality remains an area ripe for exploration.

However, the road to implementing such diagnostic tools in legal or workplace settings is long and requires extensive validation, legal considerations, and consensus on safe sleep thresholds to mitigate impairment risks effectively.

“Much further work would be needed if laws were to change and a sleep deprivation test introduced on the road or in workplaces,” Dr Jeppe said. “This would include further validation of biomarkers, as well as establishing safe levels of sleep to prevent and recover from impairment, not to mention the extensive legal process.”

The urgency for objective fatigue detection methods is underscored by historical tragedies such as the Chernobyl disaster and the Challenger space shuttle incident, where sleep deprivation-induced human error played a significant role.

Sleep deprivation, public safety, and blood tests

Similar to the transformative impact of alcohol testing in reducing traffic-related fatalities, this sleep deprivation test harbors the potential to significantly mitigate fatigue-related accidents across various sectors.

Professor Anderson concludes with a call to action for continued research and development in this area, aiming to parallel the success seen with alcohol impairment measures in enhancing public safety through fatigue management.

“Objective tests that identify individuals who present as a risk to themselves or others are urgently needed in situations where the cost of a mistake is fatal,” Professor Anderson said.

“Alcohol testing was a game changer for reducing road crashes and associated serious injuries and fatalities, and it is possible that we can achieve the same with fatigue. But much work is still required to meet this goal,” she concluded.

Future of fatigue management

In summary, this collaborative breakthrough in developing a blood test for sleep deprivation heralds a significant advancement in public safety and health management.

With its ability to accurately detect over 24 hours of wakefulness, this innovative tool offers promising applications in preventing road accidents, enhancing workplace safety, and potentially mitigating catastrophic human errors in critical sectors.

As the scientific community continues to refine and validate this test, its integration into legal and occupational settings stands to revolutionize the way society addresses and manages the pervasive issue of sleep deprivation, echoing the lifesaving impact of alcohol impairment testing.

More about the dangers of sleep deprivation

As discussed above, sleep deprivation, a common issue faced by millions worldwide, poses significant threats to both individual health and public safety. Far from being a mere inconvenience, insufficient sleep can lead to severe consequences, impacting everything from cognitive function to physical health.

Cognitive impairments and mental health

One of the most immediate effects of sleep deprivation is its impact on cognitive functions. Lack of sleep severely impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving skills, making it difficult to perform daily tasks efficiently.

Moreover, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to significant mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and mood swings. It disrupts the processes that help manage emotions, exacerbating stress and impairing one’s ability to cope with challenges.

Physical health risks

The dangers of sleep deprivation extend well beyond cognitive impairments. It has been linked to a host of physical health problems. The risk of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes increases with insufficient sleep, as it affects the body’s ability to regulate stress hormones and heal. Furthermore, sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, as it disrupts the balance of hormones that control appetite, leading to increased hunger and calorie intake.

Reduced immune function

Adequate sleep is crucial for maintaining a strong immune system. Sleep deprivation compromises the body’s ability to fight off infections, leaving individuals more susceptible to colds, the flu, and other infectious diseases. It can also prolong the recovery time from illness, as sleep supports the body’s healing processes.

Sleep deprivation blood test and public safety

The impact of sleep deprivation on public safety, particularly in relation to driving and operating heavy machinery, cannot be overstated. Sleep-deprived individuals have slower reaction times, reduced vigilance, and impaired decision-making abilities, significantly increasing the risk of accidents. Studies have shown that driving while sleep-deprived can be as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol.

Long-term consequences

Chronic sleep deprivation can have profound long-term effects on health, including a shortened lifespan. It has been associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and obesity. Furthermore, it can have detrimental effects on personal relationships, work performance, and overall quality of life.

In summary, the dangers of sleep deprivation highlight the critical importance of prioritizing sleep as a key component of overall health and wellbeing. It’s essential to recognize the signs of sleep deprivation and take proactive steps to ensure adequate rest, including maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a restful sleeping environment, and seeking professional help when necessary.

As individuals and as a society, addressing the issue of sleep deprivation can lead to improved health outcomes, enhanced safety, and a higher quality of life for everyone.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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