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Sleep Disorders

Can you die from sleep deprivation?


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December 18, 2016 11:06PM

It is medically impossible to die from sleep deprivation. Back in the Cold War both sides ran experiments where soldiers and civilian volunteers were deprived of sleep for as long as possible. Both discovered that, allowing for variables such as age, gender, overall health, activity level, and stress, the maximum duration was under two weeks. They cataloged a clear progression of symptoms beginning with fatigue and impaired cognitive function, leading to auditory and visual hallucinations, and eventually borderline insanity, and physical symptoms similar to the ones we're all familiar with, just more pronounced. Then they discovered a previously undiscovered fail-safe built into the human nervous system. Even today the physical/chemical mechanism of sleep isn't understood, but we do know that the brain needs time to inspect and repair itself, and reorder/process new memories and information: basically repair and defrag itself. The latter process manifests itself in REM sleep. If the brain is deprived of this, it breaks down.

Basically, if a person is deprived of sleep for too long, it will eventually shut itself off: the person will spontaneously fall into a deep coma. In this state the brain can take the time it needs to repair the damage to itself and its operating system(the mind). These comas are temporary, but can last for days to weeks. One American test subject was in a coma for over two months. It is this mechanism that prevents serious injury or death. So it is medically impossible to die from sleep deprivation. At least without help.

While the Russians never went this far, the American military, specifically the Army and Marine Corp, conducted trials using powerful stimulants and other drugs similar to caffeine, just prior to the First Gulf War. Using drugs that retarded the sleep impulsive and various fatigue mechanisms, a small group of soldiers were reportedly deprived of sleep for nearly three months. The goal of the project was to test the viability of the aforementioned drugs for using in the field. After the third week the soldiers psychological symptoms, hallucinations and the like, worsened to the point that they were put on anti-psychotics, and they seemed relatively normal, but after the sixth week the subjects started going off the deep end, eventually nearing a state of paranoid schizophrenia. Then, in the 11th week, things got much worse. Officially two thirds of the test subjects suffered complete psychological break downs requiring hospitalization, at least two of which were institutionalized for over two years. The remaining one third were just slightly better and simply needed sleep. But unofficially, several of the test subjects developed suicidal tenancies in the 9th week, one of whom succeeded a week later. Instead of ending the experiment right there, the subjects were put in rubber rooms and straight jackets. Then in the 11th week, two of the subjects died of heart attacks; not because of injury to the organ, but because the brain stopped telling the heart to beat. Two others suffered strokes but survived, but three more went brain dead. Their brains simply stopped working, and they died when their lungs stop receiving orders to breath. The rest of the subjects, between half and three-fifths, required mental hospitalization and extensive counseling, but never fully recovered. The survivors never returned to active military service.

So to answer your question: With the aid of drugs, it is possible to die from sleep deprivation.