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Is chronic sleep deprivation impairing President Trump's brain, performance?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/06/2017
U.S. President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House May 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images U.S. President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House May 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.

The tweet came, as they often do, when many others on the East Coast are sleeping.

But when President Trump complained to the twitterverse about all the "negative press covfefe," just after midnight Wednesday, sleep experts saw it as more than just a laughable lapse.

"Cognitive tasks like spelling are impaired by poor sleep," says neurologist Chris Winter, author of the new book The Sleep Solution. "I would think something’s up, to put it mildly,"

Trump has claimed to prefer three to four hours of sleep. And he shows "many classic signs of sleep deprivation," including bad decision making, inability to focus, irritability and impulsiveness, says Winter, who describes himself as "a fairly conservative guy."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested the typo was intentional, telling reporters, "A small group of people know exactly what he meant."

It may not be a temporary phenomenon, a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests. Chronic sleep deprivation in mice causes microglia — brain cells that get rid of toxins and clear debris — to eat small pieces of the synapses, the connections that allow neurons to communicate with each other, the study found. It did not mention Trump.

If this activation is prolonged, it could "trigger a chain of events" that leads to cellular degeneration, which is related to cognitive impairment, say neuroscientist Chiara Cirelli, who led the research. Sleep is "very, very important" to normalize the functions of the brain's synapses, she said.

"I don’t think we know of any cognition function that isn’t affected by sleep deprivation," added Cirelli, a physician who directs the Wisconsin Center for Sleep and Consciousness and is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's medical school. She cites effects on working memory, the "capacity to integrate a lot of information and even appreciation of humor."

Asked if she thinks about this when seeing and reading about Trump, Cirelli noted, "I cannot not think about this."

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini takes sleep so seriously the company pays employees up to $300 a year if they regularly sleep at least seven hours a night as shown on their tracking devices.

Trump's latest questionable tweet, about three days after he returned from a nine-day, overseas trip, was a sign Trump could be suffering from jet lag or may have even nodded off at the keyboard, Winter says.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Saudi Arabia that the president didn’t get much sleep on the flight. In his speech in Riyadh, Trump departed from his prepared remarks, saying “Islamic extremism” instead of the more carefully crafted phrase “radical Islamist extremism.”

Early Wednesday, Twitter night owls wondered what explained the lack of a follow up tweet until six hours later, when the typo-tweet was deleted and replaced by one making light of his misspelling.

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