The next time you lie in bed fuming over your inability to doze off, you might think of Randy Gardner. In the realm of sleeplessness, Gardner once made San Diego the center of the universe. This happened back in January 1964, when he was a student at Point Loma High School. Gardner wanted to enter the San Diego Science Fair, and when he heard about a Honolulu disc jockey who had set a world's record by staying awake 260 hours, the 17-year-old resolved to surpass that and make a science project out of the accomplishment.
From the start, the boy's plan intrigued reporters, and about a week into his attempted marathon, a Stanford University professor and physician named William Dement read about it in his local newspaper. Dement was then the most famous sleep researcher in the world (he still is), and the story electrified him. "I immediately called Randy's home, explained to him and his parents who I was, and asked if I could observe him attempt to break the record," the doctor has recorded in his 1999 book, The Promise of Sleep. Glad to have a medical observer on hand, the parents consented, and Dement flew south.
Over the next few days, Dement spent little time in his motel room. According to the doctor's written account of the adventure, Gardner had found it easy to stay awake until the third night, but from that point on, "He had to be watched every second to prevent him from inadvertently nodding off." Two of his friends had been doing this, sleeping only two hours per night themselves, and Dement joined them as a monitor and cheerleader. "If [Gardner] began to fall asleep, I would hustle him outside to the small basketball court in his backyard or drive him around the deserted San Diego streets in a convertible with the top down and the radio playing loudly."
The hours between 3:00 and 7:00 a.m. proved the most torturous, Dement records. The lad would close his eyes and protest that he was resting them, sometimes growing furious with his companions' insistence that he open them. When no amount of talking or shaking could rouse him, "playing basketball always worked," Dement says. "We almost had to drag him out to the backyard, but once he was there and got moving, he was much better."
As Gardner neared the end of his ordeal, other sources of stimulation helped to keep him awake. His family's phone began ringing constantly, and "reporters and cameramen began to gather at his home," Dement writes. The professor spent the 10th day "walking around town with Randy," and he says he was impressed by how well the teenager did. Gardner beat him time after time playing games on a mechanical baseball machine in a penny arcade, and "he easily bested me in several 3:00 a.m. games of basketball." The 11th day began with Gardner, who'd by then been awake for 263 hours, presiding over a huge press conference. He spoke without slurring or stumbling over his words, he appeared to be in excellent health, and he showed no signs of the psychotic behavior that Dement had suspected might result from prolonged sleep deprivation. After fielding questions for a while, Gardner was driven to Balboa Park, where he was connected to an EEG machine at the Naval Hospital's sleep lab. At 6:04 a.m. he sank into slumber -- having set a world record for sleeplessness that has never been broken.
Although Gardner's feat was one of the most dramatic and closely watched experiments ever conducted with sleep deprivation, it was by no means the first, points out Sean P.A. Drummond, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the UCSD School of Medicine and the VA hospital in San Diego. "The first publication about sleep deprivation was in 1896," Drummond says. "Patrick and Gilbert. They kept people awake for a couple of days and measured half a dozen different things. They basically showed that sleep deprivation leads to bad performance."
More than 100 years later, sleep deprivation remains a fruitful area for scientific inquiry. It's been the focus of Drummond's work for several years. Rather than confining his interest to the behavior of people who haven't slept, Drummond has been studying the activity in their sleep-deprived brains.
He began this research around 1996. He had come to UCSD to work on his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and had the opportunity to learn a new tool for understanding the brain -- functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). "Functional MRIs look at a combination of blood flow and oxygen metabolism," Drummond explains. They can be used to pinpoint what part of the brain is working on a particular task.
Drummond says another kind of brain scan -- using positron-emission tomography (PET) -- had already shattered the widespread assumption that human brains become inactive during sleep. The truth is that sleeping brains appear to be at least as active as wide-awake ones, and some parts of the brain are "probably more active," Drummond says. But although this was well-established at the time he started his work, almost no one had compared the activity in sleepy (as opposed to sleeping) brains with that in well-rested ones. Drummond set about to do so.
First he recruited a group of healthy, well-educated subjects, good sleepers all, who ranged in age from their late teens to their mid-30s. He had each volunteer take a math test after he or she had had a good night's sleep and again after going 36 hours without sleeping (the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter, then muddling through the next day without a nap). The results confirmed what researchers had already seen before: the math performance deteriorated.
Drummond's math-testing sessions also included an important new element: each time a subject was given the math exam, both sleepy and awake, a brain scan was obtained. Today when the scientist calls up on his computer the pair of slides that summarize his findings, you don't have to be a brain specialist to see the difference between the two. Whereas the well-rested math-engaged brain bears several splotches of bright color -- signs of intense activity in specific locations -- the same parts of the sleepy math-engaged brain appear almost lifeless. Drummond says, "You can see that after sleep deprivation, each of these areas that responded to the task demands while rested showed significantly less responsiveness." At least when it comes to doing math, the sleepy brain apparently "shuts down."