How sleep helps the brain learn and consolidate information

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Sleep may be more important for learning than previously believed, according to new research.
Eloise Ramos/Stocksy
  • Researchers from Brown University and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science provide further evidence on the correlation between sleep and learning.
  • Scientists have found that processes specifically related to learning help a person consolidate in sleep what they learn while awake.
  • They believe their findings provide more evidence for a learning-dependent model rather than a use-dependent model when it comes to how sleep supports the learning process.

Staying up late to prepare for tests has become a normal part of the academic process in high school and college. Now researchers from Brown University in the United States and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Japan claim that the practice hinders rather than helps the learning process.

Researchers have found evidence to suggest that sleep helps a person absorb what they are learning while awake through a process specifically focused on learning. This means that the more a person sleeps, the more time their brain has to process the knowledge and skills acquired while awake.

The results of this study can be found in The Journal of Neuroscience.

According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Yuka Sasaki, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences in Brown University’s neuroscience graduate program, sleep facilitates learning. However, the researchers had conflicting models to explain how this was done – the use-dependent model and the learning-dependent model.

the usage-dependent model states that the amount a person learns while sleeping is a result of how the brain functions when awake. On the other hand, the learning-dependent model states that what a person retains while sleeping is directly related to a neural process specifically related to learning.

For this study, Dr. Sasaki and his team wanted to know which model was most likely to help learning. The researchers used two experimental sets of human volunteers, including a mix of men and women.

During the first experiment, participants learned a visual perception learning (VPL) called Texture Discrimination Task (TDT). A VPL task helps strengthen the brain’s ability to understand what the eyes see. It helps in a variety of visual perception skills, such as visual and sequential memory, the ability to differentiate one object from another, and visuospatial relationships.

Participants in the first group underwent a pre-training test, a TDT training and a post-training test. A 90-minute nap followed the second test. Then, the facilitators conducted a third test session after the nap to find out how much learning the participants had retained.

Those in the second group were also taught the TDT task and were tested before and after a 90-minute nap. However, the researchers structured this experience differently, causing interference in the learning process.

The researchers concluded that sleep facilitates learning using the dependent model of learning. In particular, the research team found that participants in the first experimental group showed improvements in their understanding of the VPL task after the 90-minute nap.

Conversely, those in the second experimental group showed little or no improvement due to the placement of the interference condition in their training.

Additionally, when examining brain waves when participants were napping, the researchers found two types of brain signaling – theta activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and sigma activity during non-REM sleep – associated with the dependent process of learning.

Theta activity in the brain is linked to learning and working memory. Sigma activity – also known as “sleep spindles” – plays an important role in consolidating long-term memories.

Dr. Sasaki believes this research can encourage changes in the way learning happens in schools. “Research suggests that learning after sleep is beneficial for learning to be enhanced and protected,” she said. Medical News Today.

“However, if schools incorporate naps after each lesson, the circadian rhythm could be [thrown off and] that would be a bad idea. On the other hand, if school hours could be changed so that children’s nights of sleep are longer, that could be great.

Dr. Stella Panos, a neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., also spoke to MNT about the study. She thinks the findings suggest taking a different approach to learning than what we’re normally used to.

“I’m thinking middle school or high school kids,” she explained.

“When they study for an exam, they may stay up late or sleep all night thinking it will help, when it [study] would suggest that going to bed will facilitate and aid in learning and consolidation.

– Dr. Panos

Dr. Panos also said that although clinicians have known about the correlation between sleep and health conditions for many years, the specific details of how sleep affects memory are still not fully known.

“The study suggests that sleep plays a more active role in learning and memory than we previously thought, so it really adds to some of our knowledge of how sleep and memory are linked,” said she added.

For the next steps in this research, Dr. Sasaki would like to study other parts of the brain during sleep. “We mainly analyzed visual areas during sleep,” she explained.

“It remains to be tested whether the discovery could be generalized to any type of learning. Visual learning mainly involves the visual cortex, while motor learning mainly involves the motor cortex. Depending on the neural networks involved, it is possible that the underlying mechanisms differ.

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