How Sleep Helps Memory and Learning
Brain Memorizes and Stores New Skills During Sleep, Say Researchers
WebMD News Archive
June 29, 2005 --
Its to-do list includes memorizing new skills and filing them for effective
use in the morning. Without sleep, it may be tougher to master those new
That's according to experts from Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess
In their study, memory and learning improved with sleep. The findings appear
It could also help people recovering from brain injuries,
the researchers say.
The study included 12 healthy young adults. They got two lessons in
finger-tapping exercises. The task was similar to playing piano scales.
One lesson was done in the morning, followed by a test 12 hours later. The
other lesson was done in the evening, with a morning test 12 hours later.
Results were better on the morning test. That may be because subjects had a
chance to go home and get a normal night's sleep before the test, say the
They included Matthew Walker, PhD. He directs the Sleep and Neuroimaging
Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. Walker is also an assistant
professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
The researchers used a brain imaging scan while the subjects were tested.
The scans showed different brain-activity patterns after sleep.
Take the lower part of the brain, for instance. One of its jobs includes
controlling speed and accuracy. This brain region was "clearly more active
when the subjects had had a night of sleep," says Walker in a news
Not so for the more central parts of the brain. These systems are involved
in stress and emotions like anxiety. These regions were less active after
sleep, say the researchers.
Learning in Your Sleep
"The MRI scans are showing us that brain regions shift dramatically
during sleep," says Walker.
"When you're asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more
efficient storage regions within the brain," he says.
"Consequently, when you awaken, memory tasks can be performed both more
quickly and accurately, and with less stress and anxiety," says Walker.
Sleep and Age
Babies, children, and teens need more sleep than adults, says Walker.
"Sleep appears to play a key role in human development."
For instance, everything is brand new to infants. They take in an
"immense amount of new material," says Walker.
It may take a great deal of sleep to consolidate all that information, he
Sleep for Brain Rehab
After brain injuries, including stroke, patients often must learn language
and routine tasks all over again.
"Perhaps sleep will prove to be another critical factor in a stroke
patient's rehabilitation," says Walker. That wasn't tested in this
Don't Count on Catch-Up Sleep
Got a habit of burning the midnight oil during the week? A weekend sleep
binge may not make up for it.
"Our research is demonstrating that sleep is critical for improving and
consolidating procedural skills," says Walker. "You can't shortchange
your brain of sleep and still learn effectively."