Just Sleep On It!
Sleep May Enhance Memory and Learning

August 30, 2000

Do you need an excuse for getting some extra sleep? If you do, then say, "Researchers have found evidence that sleep improves memory!"

Experiments published in the August 2000 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience suggest that one of the functions of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is to help memory processing. A research team headed by Pierre Maquet used positron emission tomography (PET) and brain blood flow measurements to assess brain function when people were learning a reaction time task and when they were sleeping.

In the experiments, people were trained to press buttons when they saw certain symbols on a computer screen. The performance of these people on the reaction time task improved with practice and improved even more after they got a night's sleep.

Dr. Maquet and his co-workers found that many of the brain areas activated when people performed the reaction time task were the same as those activated during REM sleep. During REM sleep, the visual cortex, premotor cortex, and some parts of the thalamus were more active in trained subjects than in untrained subjects. These were the same areas that showed significant activation during the reaction time task.

These data suggest that areas of the brain important for learning the reaction time task are "reactivated" during REM sleep. The researchers believe that this reflects the importance of REM in memory processing, perhaps by strengthening memories. However, these experiments examined only the type of memory important for performing actions (i.e., button pressing). This is the same type of memory necessary for riding a bike. Whether the brain is activated during REM sleep after tasks such as learning vocabulary words or multiplication tables is still unknown.

You may have heard that it is a good idea to get a good night's sleep BEFORE a big test. That may be true. These new experiments suggest that it may be important to get a good night's sleep AFTER you study or after you practice a skill such as shooting basketballs.

References and further information:

  1. Maquet, P., Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Fuchs, S., Petiau, C., Phillips, C., Aerts, J., Del Fiore, G., Degueldre, C., Meulemans, T., Luxen, A., Franck, G., Van Der Linden, M., Smith, C. and Cleeremans, A. Experience-dependent changes in cerebral activation during human REM sleep, Nature Neuroscience, 3:831-836, 2000.
  2. Sleep and Why You Do It - from Neuroscience for Kids

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