Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 02, 2022
4 min read

It is no secret that a good night's sleep makes you feel better. Not only does sleep give your body time to rest and recharge, it may also be crucial to your brain's ability to learn and remember.

During sleep, while your body rests, your brain is busy processing information from the day and forming memories. If you are sleep deprived, you are at risk of developing a number of serious health problems, such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, and your ability to learn and retain new information may be impaired.

This may not be news to anyone who has pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test only to find the facts and figures they knew at 2 a.m. could not be recalled the next day. Without adequate sleep, your brain becomes foggy, your judgment poor, and your fine motor skills hindered.

Imaging and behavioral studies continue to show the critical role sleep plays in learning and memory. Researchers believe that sleep affects learning and memory in two ways:

  • Lack of sleep impairs a person's ability to focus and learn efficiently.
  • Sleep is necessary to consolidate a memory (make it stick) so that it can be recalled in the future.

There are different types of memories. Some are fact-based, such as remembering the name of state capitals. Some are episodic -- based on events in your life, such as your first kiss. And some memories are procedural or instructional, such as how to ride a bike or play the piano.

For something to become a memory, three functions must occur, including:

  • Acquisition -- learning or experiencing something new
  • Consolidation -- the memory becomes stable in the brain
  • Recall -- having the ability to access the memory in the future

Both acquisition and recall are functions that take place when you are awake. However, researchers believe sleep is required for consolidation of a memory, no matter the memory type. Without adequate sleep, your brain has a harder time absorbing and recalling new information.

Sleep does more than help sharpen the mind. Studies show that sleep affects physical reflexes, fine motor skills, and judgment, too. One study showed that participants who were sleep deprived were more likely to think they were right when they were, in fact, wrong.

Studies involving memory tests show that after a single night of sleep, or even a nap, people perform better, whether on a test, in the office, on the athletic field, or in a concert hall.

Scientists don't know exactly how sleep enhances memory, but it appears to involve the brain's hippocampus and neocortex -- the part of the brain where long-term memories are stored. It is thought that during sleep, the hippocampus replays the events of the day for the neocortex, where it reviews and processes memories, helping them to last for the long term.

Researchers continue to investigate the stages of sleep involved in making certain types of memories. Some studies have shown that certain kinds of memories become stable during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep -- the time when you dream. Other studies have found that some types of memories are most often secured during slow-wave, deep sleep. Scientists are getting closer to understanding what sleep does to our brain, but there are still many questions to be answered.

What’s certain is that sleep is a biological necessity -- we need it to survive. Unfortunately, in this day and age, few of us are able to get the sleep we need to function our best. Experts recommend adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Although this may not be attainable every night, it should be the goal.

Here are some tips to help you get more sleep:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Get regular exercise, but do not exercise close to bedtime. Experts recommend allowing at least three hours between exercise and bed.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before going to sleep.
  • Take time to unwind before going to sleep. Take a warm bath, read a book, drink some caffeine-free tea, and avoid any activities that can cause tension.
  • Finish eating two to three hours before going to bed.
  • Create a pleasant sleeping environment: make the room dark, cool, and comfortable.
  • Use a sound machine, or other type of white noise device, to block out unwanted sounds.
  • Wearable sensors such as Fit Bit,  Apple watch, Garmin, and Whoop, can collect biometric data such as heart rate, heart rate variability and hours of sleep.
  • Technologies such as Apollo wearable can also deliver light vibrations to the skin at different frequencies and intensities, which may help to positively alter the nervous system to help focus, reduce stress, and improve sleep.
  • Do not watch TV or use the computer in bed. Use your bedroom for sleep and sex only.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including getting regular and quality sleep, can be a challenge, especially when you are stressed with a work deadline or test. But, remember (and you need sleep to do this!), sleep is your friend. So, when it comes to learning and memory, sleep on it.