All sorts of thoughts float through your head. You think about the errands you have to do tomorrow, project deadlines this week, and so on. You close your eyes and try to go to sleep.2222

After what feels like an eternity, you open your eyes and look over at the clock. The numbers glare back at you: 2:39 a.m. switches to 2:40.

You sigh. It’s going to be a long night.

The 200-Hour Wake-a-Thon

In 1959, popular radio disc jockey Peter Tripp decided to pull a stunt for charity. He would go on a “wake-a-thon” for 200 hours. On the day of the event, Tripp did his regular broadcast. Scientists were present, helping him to stay awake and monitoring his health throughout the ordeal.

Tripp did surprising well. He performed his show energetically in a glass booth in Times Square, bantering and playing music for the station. Some onlookers pressed their hands against the glass to watch, while some pledged money for the charity.

After a few days, Tripp began to deteriorate. He snapped at people around him. He hallucinated cobwebs, spiders, and kittens. In his mind, the desk drawer was in flames. And when an overcoat-wearing scientist entered the booth, Tripp imagined himself to be dead and that the man was an undertaker.

For the final 66 hours of his feat, Tripp was administered drugs to help him stay awake. Finally, after surpassing the 200-hour mark, he proceeded to sleep for 13 hours. When he awoke, he was reportedly back to normal again.

However, his life soon after began to rip at the seams. According to friends, Tripp had changed mentally and emotionally. He was indicted in the 1960 payola scandal, lost his job, and became a traveling salesman.

Was it Tripp’s sleep deprivation that led to his fall from grace? According to Dr. Maiken Nedergaard’s research, Tripp’s wake-a-thon could have had lasting effects.

Nedegaard’s team found that during sleep, the brain clears itself of harmful toxins that build up during the daytime. If left uncleaned, the remaining buildup includes such waste products as beta amyloid, which forms sticky plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Since beta amyloid levels increase while a person is awake, Tripp’s eight-day experiment could have contributed to brain damage.

The Prevalence of Insomnia

According to a study performed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 30 to 40 percent of the population suffers from symptoms of insomnia in a given year. About 10 to 15 percent of people claim they suffer from chronic insomnia, meaning symptoms appear at least three nights a week for more than a month.

Insomnia, defined as habitual sleeplessness or an inability to sleep, affects many of us at one point or another. We might suffer from it temporarily due to pressure at work, family issues, or trauma. It can be ongoing due to depression or medications that interfere with sleep.

No matter what causes insomnia, studies have shown that a lack of sleep is hurting our performance, whether we feel it or not.

Photo: Markus Spiske

The University of Pennsylvania performed an experiment to determine how sleep deprivation affected groups of people. Over a two-week period, one group slept for four hours a night, a second group for six hours, and the third group for eight hours.

Every two hours, the groups underwent psychomotor tasks on a computer to test their alertness.