Scholar alumna studies effect of sleep on sustained attention

Jeff Rice
June 14, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Experts agree that the best way to perform well, particularly on a task that requires sustained attention, is to get a good night’s sleep. And then make sure to do it again and again.

Research by class of 2018 Schreyer Honors Scholar and nursing student Katie Buzzell supported that notion and also showed that humans aren’t very good at subjectively measuring how tired they are.

“We have the physiological effects of sleep and lack of sleep, which actually impair how we function, but that can differ from how we perceive ourselves to be,” said Buzzell, whose honors thesis examined the relationship between subjective sleepiness and sustained attention. “We might be more impaired than we realize.”

Working in the lab of Anne-Marie Chang, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health in Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, Buzzell looked for mismatches between the subjective reports on sleepiness, measured by the Karolinska Sleepiness Scale (KSS), and cognitive performance tests. She found that two nights of 10 hours of recovery sleep helped subjects commit fewer errors on those tests, but that the sustained attention of those subjects remained impaired.

“A lot of people operate on the assumption that they can sleep extra on the weekend to make up for the lack of sleep that they got during the week, and that’s not necessarily true to recover all of your optimal performance,” Buzzell said. “Sleep during the week is important; you can’t go a week without having it affect your day-to-day functioning.”

Buzzell’s research was part of a larger sleep restriction study, in which Chang and others tested subjects between the ages of 20 and 35 years of age. In a format designed to mimic a typical five-day workweek, subjects sleep for 10 hours for three days, five hours for five days, then 10 hours for two days in environments closely controlled for sound and light.

The ongoing study includes eight different tests, given at various points throughout the day, to measure cognitive functioning. Buzzell’s research focused on one of those tests, the psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), which uses iPads to gauge subjects’ reaction time and, said Chang, is an effective test to measure sustained attention.

“If a task is really difficult to do, then the more you do it, the better you get, and we call those practice effects or learning effects,” Chang said. “The PVT is somewhat resistant to that because it’s so simple. We don’t really get that much better by practicing.

“When you do a test like that for a long period of time, it’s easy to unmask sleepiness, because it’s so tedious, you’re so bored, it allows the researcher to unmask that, to make it apparent.”

Buzzell, who has worked as a nurse extern at Lancaster General Hospital and a direct support professional at Strawberry Fields in State College, will work in a thoracic-based step-down unit in Medstar Georgetown University Hospital as part of its graduate residency program. She appreciates the evidence-based learning she has received as she prepares to enter the nursing field.

“I really value research, and the implications of it and the application of it,” she said, “so I think that has been something that has been an asset, that I have that experience with something that is so critical to the field of nursing.”

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars, including Gateway Scholars admitted after their first or second year of enrollment, total more than 1,900 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who excel academically and lead on campus.

Last Updated June 14, 2018