Working memory capacity is decreased in sleep-deprived internal medicine residents

Ashraf Gohar, Alexander Adams, Elie Gertner, Linda Sackett-Lundeen, Richard Heitz, Randall Engle, Erhard Haus, Jagdeep Bijwadia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations


Background: Concerns about medical errors due to sleep deprivation during residency training led the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to mandate reductions in work schedules. Although call rotations with extended shifts continue, effects on resident sleep-wake times and working memory capacity (WMC) have not been investigated. Objectives: The objective of this study was to measure effects of call rotations on sleep-wake times and WMC in internal medicine residents. Methods: During 2 months of an internal medicine training program adhering to ACGME work-hour restrictions (between April 2006 and June 2007), residents completed daily WMC tests, wore actigraphy watches, and logged their sleep hours. This observational study was conducted during a call month requiring 30-hour call rotations every fourth night, whereas the noncall month, which allowed sleep/wake cycle freedom, was used as the control. Main Outcome Measures: Sleep hours per night and WMC testing. Results: Thirty-nine residents completing the study had less sleep per night during their call month (6.4 vs 7.3 h per night noncall, p < 0.001) and sleep per night varied from 3.7 to 10.1 hours. Call rotation caused greater self-assessed sleepiness and reduced WMC recall scores (-2.6/test, p < 0.05), and more math errors occurred when on call (+1.07/test, p < 0.04). Full recovery of WMC did not occur until the fourth day after call. On-call rotation on the first month had a confounding detrimental effect on WMC. Conclusion: A month of call rotations reduced overall sleep per night; sleep hours per night were variable, and WMC was adversely affected. Decreased WMC could explain impaired judgment during sleep deprivation, although clinical error rates were not evaluated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-197
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Clinical Sleep Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 15 2009


  • Residency training
  • Shift work
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Working memory capacity
  • Wrist actigraphy


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