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.
Philippe Trinchan | CORDIS Wire
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