Sleep-learning experiments are notoriously difficult to conduct. For one thing, one must be sure that the subjects are actually asleep and stay that way during the "lessons."
The most rigorous trials of verbal sleep learning have failed to show any new knowledge taking root. While more and more research has demonstrated the importance of sleep for learning and memory consolidation, none had managed to show actual learning of new information taking place in an adult brain during sleep.
Prof. Noam Sobel and research student Anat Arzi, together with Sobel's group in the Institute's Neurobiology Department in collaboration with researchers from Loewenstein Hospital and the Academic College of Tel Aviv – Jaffa, chose to experiment with a type of conditioning that involves exposing subjects to a tone followed by an odor, so that they soon exhibit a similar response to the tone as they would to the odor. The pairing of tones and odors presented several advantages. Neither wakes the sleeper (in fact, certain odors can promote sound sleep), yet the brain processes them and even reacts during slumber. Moreover, the sense of smell holds a unique non-verbal measure that can be observed – namely sniffing.
The researchers found that, in the case of smelling, the sleeping brain acts much as it does when awake: We inhale deeply when we smell a pleasant aroma but stop our inhalation short when assaulted by a bad smell. This variation in sniffing could be recorded whether the subjects were asleep or awake. Finally, this type of conditioning, while it may appear to be quite simple, is associated with some higher brain areas – including the hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation.
In the experiments, the subjects slept in a special lab while their sleep state was continuously monitored. (Waking up during the conditioning – even for a moment – disqualified the results.) As they slept, a tone was played, followed by an odor – either pleasant or unpleasant. Then another tone was played, followed by an odor at the opposite end of the pleasantness scale. Over the course of the night, the associations were partially reinforced, so that the subject was exposed to just the tones as well. The sleeping volunteers reacted to the tones alone as if the associated odor were still present – by either sniffing deeply or taking shallow breaths.
The next day, the now awake subjects again heard the tones alone – with no accompanying odor. Although they had no conscious recollection of listening to them during the night, their breathing patterns told a different story. When exposed to tones that had been paired with pleasant odors, they sniffed deeply, while the second tones – those associated with bad smells – provoked short, shallow sniffs.
The team then asked whether this type of learning is tied to a particular phase of sleep. In a second experiment, they divided the sleep cycles into rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, and then induced the conditioning during only one phase or the other. Surprisingly, they found that the learned response was more pronounced during the REM phase, but the transfer of the association from sleep to waking was evident only when learning took place during the non-REM phase. Sobel and Arzi suggest that during REM sleep we may be more open to influence from the stimuli in our surroundings, but so-called "dream amnesia" – which makes us forget most of our dreams – may operate on any conditioning occurring in that stage of sleep. In contrast, non-REM sleep is the phase that is important for memory consolidation, so it might also play a role in this form of sleep-learning.
Although Sobel's lab studies the sense of smell, Arzi intends to continue investigating brain processing in altered states of consciousness such as sleep and coma. "Now that we know that some kind of sleep learning is possible," says Arzi, "we want to find where the limits lie – what information can be learned during sleep and what information cannot."
Prof. Noam Sobel's research is supported by Regina Wachter, NY; the estate of Lore Lennon; the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Scholar in Understanding Human Cognition Program; the Minerva Foundation; and the European Research Council.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world's top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to 2,700 scientists, students, technicians and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.
Weizmann Institute news releases are posted on the World Wide Web at http://wiswander.weizmann.ac.il/, and are also available at http://www.eurekalert.org/
Yivsam Azgad | EurekAlert!
New High-Performance Center Translational Medical Engineering
26.04.2017 | Fraunhofer ITEM
A promising target for kidney fibrosis
21.04.2017 | Brigham and Women's Hospital
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
26.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
26.04.2017 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
26.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy