Scientists at the University of Alberta have found there are significant differences in the way our brains function, depending on whether we are early risers or night owls.

Using magnetic resonance imaging-guided brain stimulation, neuroscientists tested muscle torque and the excitability of pathways through the spinal cord and brain.

"We found that the brains of morning people are more excitable in the morning and evening people are completely opposite," neurophysiology researcher David Collins said Tuesday.

"The evening people ... it's almost a perfect storm of excitability in the central nervous system, where the brain is maximal in the evening and the spinal cord is maximal in the evening.... They generate the most force in the evenings," he said.

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David Collins, neurophysiology researcher at the University of Alberta (CBC)

"Morning people ... their brains are most excitable in the morning, but their spinal cords are most excitable in the evening," Collins said. 

The results may suggest that morning people are performing below their maximum possible level at all times of the day because of this, he said.

Morning person may be steadier

If you could change morning people into evening people, maybe their performance would be best in the evening, he suggested. This doesn't mean it's necessarily better to be an evening person, he said.

"A morning person may be a more consistent, steady plodder over the course of the day," Collins said.

Kaitlin Cleveley, a sports performance researcher at the U of A, likes to begin work around 10 p.m. and go until 3 a.m.

"Anything that starts in the morning is absolutely brutal for me to try and get up and try and function," she said. This study brings new perspective to training, she said.

"It's about trying to peak the athlete.... It can help to set up a sleep program, and it can help to reduce jet lag and sort of help you to determine you know 'When should I book the flight?, When should I get there?'" Cleveley said.

The research has lots of applications, including understanding mental and physical peaks and how people can maximize performance, she said.

Initially the research was to determine if brain function changes over the day, Collins said.

The study evolved with some early findings around two subjects in the study. One proved to be an extreme morning person, the other an extreme evening person, he said.