Older adults tend to learn at a lesser extent and slower rate than younger individuals. This is especially problematic for older adults at risk to injury or neurological disease who require therapy to learn and relearn motor skills. There is evidence that the reticulospinal system is critical to motor learning and that deficits in the reticulospinal system may be responsible, at least in part, for learning deficits in older adults. Specifically, delays in the reticulospinal system (measured via the startle reflex) are related to poor motor learning and retention in older adults. However, the mechanism underlying these delays in the reticulospinal system is currently unknown.
Along with aging, sleep deprivation is correlated with learning deficits. Research has shown that a lack of sleep negatively impacts motor skill learning and consolidation. Since there is a link between sleep and learning, as well as learning and the reticulospinal system, these observations raise the question: does sleep deprivation underlie reticulospinal delays? We hypothesized that sleep deprivation was correlated to a slower startle response, indicating a delayed reticulospinal system. Our objectives were to observe the impact of sleep deprivation on 1) the startle response (characterized by muscle onset latency and percentage of startle responses elicited) and 2) functional performance (to determine whether subjects were sufficiently sleep deprived).
21 young adults participated in two experimental sessions: one control session (8-10 hour time in bed opportunity for at least 3 nights prior) and one sleep deprivation session (0 hour time in bed opportunity for one night prior). The same protocol was conducted during each session. First, subjects were randomly exposed to 15 loud, startling acoustic stimuli of 120 dB. Electromyography (EMG) data measured muscle activity from the left and right sternocleidomastoid (LSCM and RSCM), biceps brachii, and triceps brachii. To assess functional performance, cognitive, balance, and motor tests were also administered. The EMG data were analyzed in MATLAB. A generalized linear mixed model was performed on LSCM and RSCM onset latencies. Paired t-tests were performed on the percentage of startle responses elicited and functional performance metrics. A p-value of less than 0.05 indicated significance.
Thirteen out of 21 participants displayed at least one startle response during their control and sleep deprived sessions and were further analyzed. No differences were found in onset latency (RSCM: control = 75.87 ± 21.94ms, sleep deprived = 82.06 ± 27.47ms; LSCM: control = 79.53 ± 17.85ms, sleep deprived = 78.48 ± 20.75ms) and percentage of startle responses elicited (control = 84.10 ± 15.53%; sleep deprived = 83.59 ± 18.58%) between the two sessions. However, significant differences were observed in reaction time, TUG with Dual time, and average balance time with the right leg up. Our data did not support our hypothesis; no significant differences were seen between subjects’ startle responses during the control and sleep deprived sessions. However, sleep deprivation was indicated with declines were observed in functional performance. Therefore, we concluded that sleep deprivation may not affect the startle response and underlie delays in the reticulospinal system.