BBC
Washington
The mechanism by which a good night's sleep improves learning and memory has been discovered by scientists.
The team in China and the US used advanced microscopy to witness new connections between brain cells - synapses - forming during sleep . Their study, published in the journal Science, showed even intense training could not make up for lost sleep .
Experts said it was an elegant and significant study, which uncovered the mechanisms of memory . It is well known that sleep plays an important role in memory and learning. But what actually happens inside the brain has been a source of considerable debate.
Researchers at New York University School of Medicine and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School trained mice in a new skill - walking on top of a rotating rod. They then looked inside the living brain with a microscope to see what happened when the animals were either sleeping or sleep deprived.
Their study showed that sleeping mice formed significantly more new connections between neurons - they were learning more. And by disrupting specific phases of sleep , the research group showed deep or slow-wave sleep was necessary for memory formation. During this stage, the brain was ‘replaying’ the activity from earlier in the day.
Prof Wen-Biao Gan, from New York University, told the BBC: ‘Finding out sleep promotes new connections between neurons is new, nobody knew this before. ‘We thought sleep helped, but it could have been other causes, and we show it really helps to make connections and that in sleep the brain is not quiet, it is replaying what happened during the day and it seems quite important for making the connections.’
This is just the latest piece of science to highlight the importance of sleep .
A new reason for sleep was discovered last year when experiments showed the brain used sleep to wash away waste toxins built up during a hard day's thinking. However, there are concerns that people are not getting enough sleep . As part of the BBC's Day of the Body Clock, Prof Russell Foster argued that society had become ‘supremely arrogant’ in ignoring the importance of sleep , leading to ‘serious health problems’.