Sleep Disorders

25 June 2012

Learn that tune while fast asleep

Want to nail the tune that you've practiced? Maybe you should take a nap with the same melody playing during your sleep, new research suggests.


Want to nail that tune that you've practised and practised? Maybe you should take a nap with the same melody playing during your sleep, new provocative North-western University research suggests.

The research grows out of exciting existing evidence that suggests that memories can be reactivated during sleep and storage of them can be strengthened in the process.

In the North-western study, research participants learned how to play two artificially generated musical tunes with well-timed key presses. Then while the participants took a 90-minute nap, the researchers presented one of the tunes that had been practised, but not the other.

"Our results extend prior research by showing that external stimulation during sleep can influence a complex skill," said Ken A Paller, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at North-western and senior author of the study.

Learn foreign language while asleep

By using EEG methods to record the brain's electrical activity, the researchers ensured that the soft musical "cues" were presented during slow-wave sleep, a stage of sleep previously linked to cementing memories. Participants made fewer errors when pressing the keys to produce the melody that had been presented while they slept compared to the melody not presented.

"We also found that electrophysiological signals during sleep correlated with the extent to which memory improved," said lead author James Antony of the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at North-western. "These signals may thus be measuring the brain events that produce memory improvement during sleep."

The age-old myth that you can learn a foreign language while you sleep is sure to come to mind, said Paul J. Reber, associate professor of psychology at North-western and a co-author of the study.

Enhancing existing memory

"The critical difference is that our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you've already learned," Reber said. "Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we're talking about enhancing an existing memory by re-activating information recently acquired."

The researchers, he said, are now thinking about how their findings could apply to many other types of learning.

"If you were learning how to speak in a foreign language during the day, for example, and then tried to reactivate those memories during sleep, perhaps you might enhance your learning."

Learn about brain mechanisms

Paller said he hopes the study will help them learn more about the basic brain mechanisms that transpire during sleep to help preserve memory storage.

"These same mechanisms may not only allow an abundance of memories to be maintained throughout a lifetime, but they may also allow memory storage to be enriched through the generation of novel connections among memories," he said.

The study opens the door for future studies of sleep-based memory processing for many different types of motor skills, habits and behavioural dispositions, Paller said.

(Eurek Alert, June 2012) 

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The amazing brain



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Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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