Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


We learn while we sleep - Link discovered between slow brain waves and learning success


If you want to pass an exam, be sure to get some good sleep before-hand. Because in sleep the brain processes and consolidates newly learnt matter. This is revealed in a new study shortly to be published in Nature. The study was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

As soon as deep sleep sets in, the brain cells start working in concord. Like football fans raising their hands in unison during a Mexican wave, millions of individual brain cells respond simultaneously with an electric signal. They thus generate the regular, low-frequency brain waves that are characteristic of deep sleep. Until now, the purpose of this brain activity was largely unknown. The shortly to be published study puts this function in a new context. Slow brain waves appear to consolidate and reinforce freshly learnt matter, explains Reto Huber, who conducted the study at the University of Wisconsin laboratory of Giulio Tononi in Madison, USA. The study is due for publication in the prestigious science journal Nature* on 1 July. Reto Huber holds a grant from the Swiss Foundation for Medical-Biological Scholarships (SSMBS) that was financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

For the purpose of the study, Reto Huber set 12 subjects a special learning task and then measured their brain activity during sleep. The subjects first had to accomplish a learning test on a computer. The basically simple task consisted of using a mouse to move the cursor to a set point on the screen. Subconsciously, however, they were learning new motor skills, because what the subjects did not know was that the computer was programmed to generate a slight aberration in the direction of the cursor movement, which they had to compensate for by modifying the mouse movements. Moreover, since their hand was covered during the experiment they did not realize the computer was playing tricks on them. Conscious learning very often involves many areas of the brain, which would have made it much harder to demonstrate local activation, explains Huber.

Such unconscious motor skills learning takes place in a small, thumbsized region of the right cerebral cortex, as other researchers have already shown. Reto Huber now wanted to find out whether this region of the brain displayed any special activity during sleep. To this end, he recorded the brain wave activities of the study subjects in their sleep by means of 256 electrodes attached all over their heads.

The large number of electrodes enabled Huber not only to register, but also to pinpoint the precise location of brain activity.

The deeper you sleep, the better you learn

And indeed the young Swiss researcher discovered what many brain researchers considered impossible. We noticed larger slow brain waves in the area of the brain that had been used for the test and nowhere else, said Huber. Not only that. The subjects who were most successful at mastering the test the next morning were also those whose brains had produced especially large slow waves during the night. The night-time brain waves seemed not only to have consolidated, but also to have enhanced performance in the computer-based test. Our study provides the first evidence that sleep plays an important role in learning processes, concludes Huber.

Scientists are still largely in the dark about the processes that actually take place in the brain during sleep at night or an afternoon nap. In particular, what happens at synapse level is largely unknown. Sleep researchers are considering the possibility that nighttime brain activity tests and sorts out newly created synapses. Important synapses would be retained and reinforced, unimportant ones disconnected. The slow brain waves may be performing a functional test of the synapses, says Huber.

Alexander Borbély, the Zurich sleep scientist under whose tutelage Huber obtained his doctorate, is impressed by these latest results. They prove that sleep can have highly localized effects on the brain. I believe these are very important findings.

Philippe Trinchan | CORDIS Wire
Further information:

More articles from Health and Medicine:

nachricht Inflammation Triggers Unsustainable Immune Response to Chronic Viral Infection
24.10.2016 | Universität Basel

nachricht Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia
21.10.2016 | Universitätsklinikum Magdeburg

All articles from Health and Medicine >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>