Sleep Helps the Brain Learn

Skip the all-night study sessions; the brain learns better with a good night's sleep.

The Belgian researchers behind that little nugget of wisdom aren't just talking about the zombie-like feeling that boggles the mind after staying up 'round the clock. The sleep-deprivation hangover lingered for a couple of days in their experiment.

Their findings were presented in Toronto at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping's annual meeting.

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No Snoozing Allowed

The study started out innocently enough. In fact, you might even call it fun. The 22 volunteers were asked to play a video game, exploring a virtual town for 35 minutes. Then, they got MRI brain scans while playing the game. Their task: Navigate to a specific location in the "town" in 28 seconds.

Then, the study took a twist. The University of Liege's Pierre Orban and colleagues sent 12 participants home to get a normal night's sleep. The other 10 subjects got a very different experience. They had to stay overnight at the lab, wide awake and under "controlled conditions" that were probably nothing like the comforts of home.

When morning came, the sleepless crew was free to go. Amazingly, they returned to the lab -- along with their well-rested peers -- a few days later to retake the video game test. By then, everyone had had at least two nights of normal sleep.

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Regular Sleep Pays Off

What happened during the rematch? The well-rested group had more activity in an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus. This area of the brain is partly responsible for body movement and coordination. That may mean that their brains had done a better job of automating the skills needed for the video game, say the researchers.

Sleep may help the brain reorganize itself to adopt newly learned skills, says Orban's group.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Organization for Human Brain Mapping 11th Annual Meeting, Toronto, Canada, June 12-16, 2005. News release, Organization for Human Brain Mapping.