Can You Learn While You Sleep?

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Can You Learn While You Sleep?

Can you learn while you sleep? The answer is yes, apparently. In a research study published recently, French researchers report that the sleeping brain can learn new information, provided that they are delivered on the right time during the sleep. 

 

Sleep may be a natural thing for many, but it is a big issue for scientists as they are yet to find an answer for the question, why we sleep. They are still grappling with the precise role of sleep. Earlier studies have found that sleep helps, in humans and rodents, to consolidate previously learned memories. 

A study published in the journal Nature Communications by Thomas Andrillon and others has found that auditory memories can be formed during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and light non-REM sleep, a time when we normally see dreams. The research was done as part of the doctoral study of Andrillon at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris.

The research team presented various acoustic patterns embedded in white noise to 20 healthy human participants during sleep and monitored through electroencephalography (EEG), electrooculography (EOG), and electromyography (EMG). The sounds are played in different phases of the sleep like wakefulness, REM sleep, and non-REM sleep. White noise is used as it was a good example of something very complex and the researchers were interested in seeing whether such complex automatic learning could be performed during sleep, Andrillon explained to The Scientist. 

When the participants’ ability to identify the patterns is tested in the next morning, the researchers found that the recall performances are improved during REM sleep and light non-REM sleep. However, the performance is impaired during deep non-REM sleep. The analysis of EEG signals confirmed this with brain waves characteristic of learning present during light non-REM sleep and absent during deep non-REM sleep. 

Andrillon however cautions that the study does not mean that we can learn more complex stimuli, such as learning a new language, during sleep.

The study may help to resolve two different theories on the role of sleep on memory, according to scholars in the subject. One theory suggests that sleep helps to actively strengthen memories with brain reactivating the network of neurons that were involved in learning the task from the previous day. Other theory argues that sleep helps maintain homeostasis, tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium, with brain forgets diminishing synaptic connections. This causes in the disappearance of weak links and only the strongest associations will remain.

The present study essentially says that it’s neither strengthening nor downscaling, as argued by the two theories, but it’s both depending on the brain state, told Christoph Nissen, a professor at the University Psychiatric Services Bern in Switzerland to The Scientist. Nissen, though, was not involved in the study. 

The major implication of the study may perhaps be in the manipulation of sleep as devices to record or alter sleeping habits are now available in market. 

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