Sleep restriction and cognitive load affect performance on a simulated marksmanship task

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Sleep restriction degrades cognitive and motor performance, which can adversely impact job performance and increase the risk of accidents. Military personnel are prone to operating under sleep restriction, and previous work suggests that military marksmanship may be negatively affected under such conditions. Results of these studies, however, are mixed and have often incorporated additional stressors (e.g. energy restriction) beyond sleep restriction. Moreover, few studies have investigated how the degree of difficulty of a marksmanship task impacts performance following sleep restriction. The purpose of the current experiment was to study the effects of sleep restriction on marksmanship while minimizing the potential influence of other forms of stress. A friend–foe discrimination challenge with greater or lesser degrees of complexity (high versus low load) was used as the primary marksmanship task. Active duty Soldiers were recruited, and allowed 2 h of sleep every 24 h over a 72-h testing period. Marksmanship tasks, cognitive assessment metrics and the NASA-Task Load Index were administered daily. Results indicated that reaction times to shoot foe targets and signal friendly targets slowed over time. In addition, the ability to correctly discriminate between friend and foe targets significantly decreased in the high-cognitive-load condition over time despite shot accuracy remaining stable. The NASA-Task Load Index revealed that, although marksmanship performance degraded, participants believed their performance did not change over time. These results further characterize the consequences of sleep restriction on marksmanship performance and the perception of performance, and reinforce the importance of adequate sleep among service members when feasible.

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