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Chronobiol Int. 2006;23(6):1139-47.

Shift work and inter-individual differences in sleep and sleepiness.

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Sleep and Performance Research Center, Washington State University-Spokane, Spokane, Washington 99210-1495, USA.


Inter-individual differences in tolerance for shift work have been studied primarily in terms of external factors affecting alertness on the job or the ability to rest and sleep while at home. However, there is increasing evidence that neurobiological factors play a role as well, particularly the major processes involved in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness. These include a sleep homeostatic process seeking to balance wakefulness and sleep and a circadian process seeking to promote wakefulness during the day and sleep during the night. Shift work is associated with a temporal misalignment of these two endogenous processes. During nightwork, this misalignment makes it difficult to stay awake during the nightshift and sleep during the day. However, inter-individual variability in the processes involved in sleep/wake regulation is substantial. Recent studies have demonstrated the existence of inter-individual differences in vulnerability to cognitive deficits from sleep loss. Moreover, these inter-individual differences were shown to constitute a trait. Interestingly, self-evaluations of sleepiness did not correspond well with the trait inter-individual variability in objective levels of performance impairment during sleep deprivation. Perhaps because of this discrepancy, in operational settings, the inter-individual differences in vulnerability to sleep loss do not appear to be limited due to self-selection mechanisms. Indeed, even among a highly select group of active-duty jet fighter pilots flying a series of simulated night missions, systematic inter-individual differences in performance impairment from sleep loss were still observed. There are significant personal and economic consequences to human error and accidents caused by performance deficits due to sleep loss. It is important, therefore, to study the inter-individual differences in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness in the work environment so that cognitive impairment during shift work may be better anticipated and prevented.

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