Sleep Plays a Key Role in Memory, Learning

Monday, 25 Mar 2013 05:45 PM

By Nick Tate

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Having a hard time remembering things? It could be you just need to catch up on your sleep, new research suggests.

Sleep specialists with the University of Chicago have found that sleep plays an important role in the brain's ability to learn and remember things, particularly when two new potentially competing tasks are acquired in the same day.

While past research has shown sleep is important for learning a new skill, the new study shows learning a second one can undermine the previously learned task, but that a good night’s sleep helps the brain retain both new memories.

"The study demonstrates that sleep restores performance and makes learning robust against interference encountered after sleep,” said researcher Howard Nusbaum, a professor of psychology and a leading expert on learning who helped lead the study published online in the journal Psychological Science. “This process is critical to the formation and stability of long-term memories."

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The findings are based on a study of starlings' ability to recognize and remember new songs. The researchers said the findings are relevant to human memories because of fundamental biological similarities between birds’ and mammals’ brains.

For the study, the researchers conducted two experiments using 24 starlings that were played two recorded songs and then tested for their ability to recognize and repeat them. Afterward, the birds were trained to recognize and perform a different pair of songs.

In their experiments, the authors examined the effect of sleep on the consolidation of starlings' memories. The results showed that when the starlings were allowed to sleep after learning both sets of songs, they were better able to perform both pairs of tunes, suggesting that sleep consolidation enhances their memory.

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