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How Sleep Deprivation Causes People to Drag Their Feet

Pulling an all-nighter decreases sensorimotor control of gait synchronization.

Key points

  • When people walk or run while listening to music, their feet subconsciously synchronize to the beats per minute (BPM) of a song.
  • New research shows that sleep deprivation throws off the synchronization of someone’s gait when walking on a treadmill.
  • If people compensate for a sleep deficit by getting more rest on the weekend, their implicit coordination bounces back.
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock
Source: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

In 2013, Hermano Krebs, a research scientist from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, collaborated with the University of São Paulo’s Arturo Forner-Cordero to investigate if subtly changing the tempo of a metronome would subconsciously shift the cadence of someone’s gait while walking on a treadmill.

Notably, this research (Forner-Cordero et al., 2014) into how implicit auditory perturbations affect gait found that study participants would start walking to the beat without realizing that their steps had become synchronized with the metronome.

In a recent follow-up experiment (Umemura et al., 2021), published on October 26, 2021, in Scientific Reports, the researchers focused on how sleep deprivation affects gait synchronicity and people’s tendency to unconsciously keep time with a metronome’s rhythm while treadmill walking.

The researchers explain the neuroscience behind fine-tuned motor coordination:

“Connections of the prefrontal cortex with regions of the cerebellum are responsible for the real-time control of movement execution; different areas of the cerebellum are very important for locomotion and postural adjustments, as well as complex movements associated with auditory and visual stimuli, such as reaching with a hand at a given point along with a visual stimulus. This circuitry plays a crucial role in performing voluntary movements, especially when these movements require precision and fine motor skills, as well as in sequences of movements involving many joints.”

Binaural beats subconsciously synchronize the timing of our feet.

Anecdotally, I know as a runner that synchronizing my stride so that my feet hit the treadmill belt with metronome-like precision helps me create a flow state in which my body movements feel fluid, and my mind is actively engaged in the task at hand.

For example, while doing a treadmill run this morning, a few of my favorite songs came on shuffle mode, and sure enough, my feet started hitting the ground in perfect synchronicity with each song’s beats per minute (BPM). The synchrony of my gait accompanied a feeling of fluidity that I suspect was facilitated by the synergy of all four brain hemispheres (both cerebral hemispheres and both cerebellar hemispheres) working in perfect harmony.

Chris Bergland
Source: Chris Bergland

Interestingly, when I broke a Guinness World Record by running six back-to-back marathons on a treadmill in 24 hours (9 a.m. on a Thursday to 9 a.m. on a Friday) without taking any sleep breaks, the most difficult part of this ultra-endurance event was that my coordination became discombobulated after pulling an all-nighter.

On the second morning of non-stop running, instead of being able to keep time with the music playing in the background and have every footfall synchronize to the BPM of each song, my feet were literally dragging on the treadmill belt, and my sense of rhythm was completely off.

Until recently, I thought that this lack of motor coordination was just because I was physically tired, but new research on how sleep deprivation affects gait control by Forner-Cordero and Krebs suggests that pulling an all-nighter throws off people’s timing when they’re walking on a treadmill.

Sleep deprivation disrupts each foot’s beat synchronization when walking.

For their recent study (2021) on how sleep deprivation affects gait control, the researchers had a cohort of college students at the University of São Paulo stick to their daily wake-sleep routine for two weeks while their sleeping and waking habits were monitored using a fitness tracker (i.e., actigraphy).

Within the larger sample, a smaller group of study participants were randomly assigned to an “acute sleep deprivation” group that came into the laboratory on a Thursday evening (the experiment’s 13th day) and were asked to stay awake until performing the gait tests on Friday morning after 8:30 a.m. On the 14th day, all of the other study participants visited the biomechatronics laboratory and were tested to see how the synchrony of every footfall responded to subtle changes in a metronome’s tempo.

Without explicit knowledge that they were being tested to see how their feet synchronized to the implicit rhythmic auditory cueing (RAC) of a metronome, the group that pulled an all-nighter significantly underperformed in comparison to a control group that compensated for weekly sleep deficits by sleeping more on weekends and those with uncompensated chronic sleep deficits.

Those who didn’t get enough sleep during the week but slept more on weekends performed better on the sensorimotor synchronization gait protocol than those who didn’t compensate for lost sleep.

“Scientifically, it wasn’t clear that almost automatic activities like walking would be influenced by lack of sleep,” Krebs said in a news release. “We also find that compensating for sleep could be an important strategy. For instance, for those who are chronically sleep-deprived, like shift workers, clinicians, and some military personnel, if they build in regular sleep compensation, they might have better control over their gait.”

References

Guilherme Silva Umemura, João Pedro Pinho, Jacques Duysens, Hermano Igo Krebs & Arturo Forner-Cordero. “Sleep Deprivation Affects Gait Control.” Scientific Reports (First published: October 26, 2021) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-00705-9

Guilherme Silva Umemura, João Pedro Pinho, Bruno da Silva Brandão Gonçalves, Fabianne Furtado & Arturo Forner-Cordero. “Social Jetlag Impairs Balance Control.” Scientific Reports (First published: June 20, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-27730-5

Arturo Forner-Cordero, Cinthia Itiki, Rafael Sanchez Souza, João Carlos M. C. Lourenço, Hermano Igo Krebs. “Experimental Assessment of Gait with Rhythmic Auditory Perturbations.” 5th IEEE RAS/EMBS International Conference on Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics (First published: October 02, 2014) DOI: 10.1109/BIOROB.2014.6913790

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