ADHD News & Research

Study: Adults with Subclinical ADHD Experience Greater Impairment After Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can cause greater cognitive impairment in adults with subclinical ADHD symptoms than seen in adults with low ADHD symptoms, according to a recent study.

January 20, 2021

Sleep deprivation causes greater impairment in attentional regulation and emotional control among adults with subclinical ADHD symptoms than it does among those with low ADHD symptoms, according to a study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.1 “Subclinical” refers to symptoms of ADHD not severe, numerous, prevalent, or debilitating enough to merit a diagnosis, according to the DSM-5.

The study included 180 participants ages 17-45 without an ADHD diagnosis who were assessed for inattentiveness and emotional instability, and then randomly assigned to receive a night of normal sleep or total sleep deprivation. The subjects then performed a computerized Stroop task that measured executive function and emotional control.

Researchers found that sleep deprivation caused impairment on all tasks. Subjects with higher levels of baseline inattention demonstrated increased cognitive conflict reaction after sleep deprivation but not after normal sleep. This relationship persisted after controlling for baseline cognitive conflict reaction time and emotional instability. In other words, participants with symptoms of inattention were more vulnerable to sleep deprivation and exhibited greater executive function impairment than did those with low ADHD traits.

Researcher Predrag Petrovic, M.D., Ph.D., of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, explained the importance of these findings: “We know that young people are getting much less sleep than they did just 10 years ago. If young people with high ADHD traits regularly get too little sleep, they will perform worse cognitively and, what’s more, their symptoms might even end up at a clinically significant level.”

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1Floros O, Axelsson J, Almeida R, et al. Vulnerability in executive functions to sleep deprivation is predicted by subclinical attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. (Oct. 2020)