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Sleep may be more important to learning than previously believed, new research suggests.
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  • Researchers from Brown University and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science provide further evidence on the correlation between sleep and learning.
  • Scientists found that processes specifically related to learning help a person consolidate during sleep what they learn while awake.
  • They believe their findings provide more proof of a learning-dependent model rather than a use-dependent model when it comes to how sleep supports the learning process.

Staying up late to cram for tests has become a normal part of the high school and college academic process. Now, researchers from Brown University in the United States and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Japan say that this practice hinders rather than helps the learning process.

Researchers found evidence that suggests sleep helps a person absorb what they learn while awake through a process that is specifically centered on learning. This means that the more sleep a person gets, the more time their brain has to process knowledge and skills learned while they are awake.

The results from this study appear in The Journal of Neuroscience.

According to lead study author Dr. Yuka Sasaki, professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Brown University, sleep facilitates learning. However, researchers had conflicting models to explain how it does that — the use-dependent model and the learning-dependent model.

The use-dependent model states that the amount a person learns while sleeping is the result of how the brain functions when awake. On the other hand, the learning-dependent model states that what a person retains during sleep is directly connected to a neural process specifically related to learning.

For this study, Dr. Sasaki and her team wanted to find out which model was most likely to aid learning. Researchers used two experimental sets of human volunteers, including a mix of both males and females.

During the first experiment, participants learned a visual perceptual learning (VPL) task called a texture discrimination task (TDT). A VPL task helps strengthen the brain’s ability to comprehend what the eyes see. This helps in a variety of visual perception skills, such as visual and sequential memory, being able to differentiate between one object and another, and visual-spatial relations.

Participants in the first group underwent a pre-training test, TDT training, and a post-training test. A 90-minute nap followed the second test. Then facilitators conducted a third testing session after the nap to find out how much learning participants retained.

Those in the second group were also taught the TDT task and underwent testing both before and after a 90-minute nap. However, researchers structured this experiment differently, causing interference within the learning process.

The researchers concluded that sleep facilitates learning using the learning-dependent model. In particular, the research team found participants in the first experimental group showed improvements in their grasp of the VPL task following the 90-minute nap.

Conversely, those in the second experimental group showed little to no improvement due to the placement of the interference condition in their training.

Additionally, when examining brain waves when the participants were napping, researchers found two types of brain signaling — theta activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and sigma activity during non-REM sleep — associated with the learning-dependent process.

Theta activity in the brain relates to learning and working memory. Sigma activity — also known as “sleep spindles” — plays an important role in consolidating long-term memories.

Dr. Sasaki believes this research may encourage changes in how learning takes place in schools. “The research suggests that learning after sleep is beneficial for learning to be enhanced and protected,” she told Medical News Today.

“However, if schools incorporate naps after every class, then the circadian rhythm might be [thrown off and] this would be a bad idea. On the other hand, if school hours could be modified so that kids’ night sleep could be longer, this may be great.”

Dr. Stella Panos, neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, also spoke to MNT regarding this study. She believes the findings suggest taking a different approach to learning than what we are normally accustomed to.

“I think about college students or high school students,” she explained.

“When they’re studying for a test, they might stay up late or do an all-nighter thinking that’s going to help, whereas this [study] would suggest that actually going to bed is going to facilitate and help with the learning and consolidation.”

– Dr. Panos

Dr. Panos also said that while clinicians have known about the correlation between sleep and health conditions for many years, specific details on how sleep affects memory are still not entirely known.

“The study suggests that sleep plays a more active role in learning and memory than we thought before, so it’s really adding to some of our knowledge about how sleep and memory are related,” she added.

For next steps in this research, Dr. Sasaki would like to investigate other parts of the brain during sleep. “We mainly analyzed the visual areas during sleep,” she explained.

“It is yet to be tested whether the finding could be generalized to any type of learning. Visual learning mainly involves the visual cortex, while motor learning mainly involves the motor cortex. Depending on the involved neural networks, it might be possible that the underlying mechanisms differ.”