The Nap Defense

By | June 20, 2011

Have you ever had your attention wander during a client presentation, forgotten to recommend a coverage, left an account folder at a restaurant or fallen asleep at the wheel on the way to a meeting?

Those might be the office equivalent of losing your keys or sticking the milk in the cupboard and the cereal in the refrigerator. Except at home, there’s little risk of an errors and omissions (E&O) claim coming on the heels of the mishap.

Now, Insurance Journal is happy to report, should an E&O claim unfortunately transpire, you may be able to take advantage of a novel defense: You were a victim of micro-sleep.

That’s right. You may have been the victim of a tired brain region that was taking a quick nap. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that some nerve cells in a sleep-deprived, yet awake brain can briefly go “off line,” into a sleep-like state, while the rest of the brain appears awake.

E&O issue? You could be a victim of micro-sleep.

“Even before you feel fatigued, there are signs in the brain that you should stop certain activities that may require alertness,” said Dr. Chiara Cirelli, professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine and Public Health. “Specific groups of neurons may be falling asleep, with negative consequences on performance.”

Until now, scientists thought that sleep deprivation generally affected the entire brain. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) – now there’s a brain teaser! – show network brain-wave patterns typical of either being asleep or awake.

“We know that when we are sleepy, we make mistakes, our attention wanders and our vigilance goes down,” Cirelli said. “We have seen with EEGs that even while we are awake, we can experience shorts periods of ‘micro sleep.'”

As reported in the journal Nature, the researchers inserted probes into the brains of freely behaving rats. After the rats were kept awake for prolonged periods, the probes showed areas of “local sleep” despite the animals’ appearance of being awake and active.

“Even when some neurons went off line, the overall EEG measurements of the brain indicated wakefulness in the rats,” Cirelli said.

And there were behavioral consequences to the local sleep episodes.

“When we prolonged the awake period, we saw the rats start to make mistakes,” she said.

When animals were challenged to do a tricky task, such as reaching with one paw to get a sugar pellet, they began to drop the pellets or miss in reaching for them, indicating that a few neurons might have gone off line.

Now, Insurance Journal is not making light of E&O claims. We are also not qualified to give legal advice and have no idea if arguing that some of your neurons went offline would work as a defense. We just thought knowing about this might help you sleep better.

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Insurance Journal West June 20, 2011
June 20, 2011
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