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Why Thinking Hard Makes You Feel Tired


tired businesswoman working at night crumples a sheet of paper

Mental strain can lead to changes in brain physiology that cause feelings of tiredness.

Credit: Getty Images

The desire to shut down after a day spent toiling at the computer could be a physiological response to mentally demanding work, according to a study that links mental fatigue to changes in brain metabolism.

The study, published in Current Biology, reports that participants who spent more than six hours working on a tedious and mentally taxing assignment had higher levels of glutamate — an important signalling molecule in the brain. Too much glutamate can disrupt brain function, the authors note.

The researchers found that participants who labored on a challenging task had accumulated more glutamate in the lateral prefrontal cortex region of the brain by the end of the day than had those who worked on an easier task. And, given a choice between an immediate cash reward and a larger reward that would come months later, they were more likely to choose the smaller, short-term reward than they were at the start of the day.

Co-author Antonius Wiehler, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute, hopes to use the system to learn more about how to recover from mental exhaustion.

From Nature
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