Night owls’ cognitive function ‘superior’ to early risers, study suggests | Neuroscience

The idea that night owls who don’t go to bed until the early hours struggle to get anything done during the day may have to be revised.

It turns out that staying up late could be good for our brain power as research suggests that people who identify as night owls could be sharper than those who go to bed early.

Researchers led by academics at Imperial College London studied data from the UK Biobank study on more than 26,000 people who had completed intelligence, reasoning, reaction time and memory tests.

They then examined how participants’ sleep duration, quality, and chronotype (which determines what time of day we feel most alert and productive) affected brain performance.

They found that those who stay up late and those classed as “intermediate” had “superior cognitive function”, while morning larks had the lowest scores.

Going to bed late is strongly associated with creative types. Artists, authors and musicians known to be night owls include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James Joyce, Kanye West and Lady Gaga.

But while politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Barack Obama famously seemed to thrive on little sleep, the study found that sleep duration is important for brain function, with those getting between seven and nine hours of shut-eye each night performing best in cognitive tests.

Dr Raha West, lead author and clinical research fellow at the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, said: “While understanding and working with your natural sleep tendencies is essential, it’s equally important to remember to get just enough sleep, not too long or too short. This is crucial for keeping your brain healthy and functioning at its best.”

Prof Daqing Ma, the co-leader of the study who is also from Imperial’s department of surgery and cancer, added: “We found that sleep duration has a direct effect on brain function, and we believe that proactively managing sleep patterns is really important for boosting, and safeguarding, the way our brains work.

“We’d ideally like to see policy interventions to help sleep patterns improve in the general population.”

But some experts urged caution in interpreting the findings. Jacqui Hanley, head of research funding at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Without a detailed picture of what is going on in the brain, we don’t know if being a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person affects memory and thinking, or if a decline in cognition is causing changes to sleeping patterns.”

Jessica Chelekis, a senior lecturer in sustainability global value chains and sleep expert at Brunel University London, said there were “important limitations” to the study as the research did not account for education attainment, or include the time of day the cognitive tests were conducted in the results. The main value of the study was challenging stereotypes around sleep, she added.

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