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Sleep? Maybe Tomorrow Night

As winter slowly descends, deadline season looms closer for students, which usually means endless caffeine-fueled hours trying to manage three assignments due the same week. The library echoes with a chorus of yawns and stretches indicating the popular all-nighter is about to be pulled. It is a tough battle, as students fight between the urge to sleep and the 10am deadline that awaits the next day.

Poor sleep quality is a very common characteristic of student life. In 1978, around 24 per cent of students in the UK reported sleep problems, a figure which increased to 68 per cent in 1992. This is felt here in St Andrews. ‘‘Deadline season is probably when I am the most sleep deprived’’, says Riya, a second-year student at the University. In her experience, finding a way to juggle healthy sleep schedules with feeling accomplished and productive with work can be hard to achieve.

To combat this popular feeling, many universities are introducing sleep-friendly measures to help their students. The University of Manchester installed sleeping pods in their libraries for students attempting all-nighters. The University of East Anglia opened a new sleep room scheme. Here, students can book a forty-minute slot to nap and recharge in between classes and revision sessions. It's clear that universities are trying to tackle the issue of sleep among their students. But why is it worth investing hefty funds to ensure students get enough sleep?

There is, of course, a scientific reason behind why you need sleep as a student. It's all to do with a structure called the hippocampus located on both sides of your brain. It acts as an ‘inbox’ for information, playing a key role in receiving and holding onto new memories. Without enough sleep, the hippocampus lacks any significant electrical signal and shuts down any memories not already absorbed.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker at the University of California has spent years exploring the connection between sleep and memory. He carried out a study using two experimental groups. Group A got a healthy, recommended, eight-hour sleep and Group B stayed awake, deprived of any sleep or caffeine. He recorded their brain activity through an MRI machine whilst asking them to learn a new series of facts. The results were clear. Group B’s results reported a shocking 40 per cent deficit in the brain's ability to hold onto these new memories learned.

Walker also discovered in the brain scans, bursts of electrical activity known as sleep spindles. These act as a bridge, shifting memories from short-term to long-term storage. In Group A’s scan, these spindles were highly alert and functioning. Therefore any new facts they learned were protected in the hippocampus, making sure they were not forgotten.

As daunting and dreadful as all-nighters can seem, many of us need them to finish deadlines. Thankfully, scientists recognise this and can offer advice on recovering optimum brain function. Physician and sleep Professor Mark Rosekind, recommends limiting caffeine intake to 100 to 200 milligrams and scheduling quick power naps to recharge during the day. Professor Rosekind also stresses the importance of exercise and staying active which supports healthy brain function, including memory retention.

So as we power through deadline season, remembering the importance of sleep is crucial. In the words of Matthew Walker, “Sleep can be your ultimate superpower”.

Illustration by Calum Mayor

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