How Sleep Helps Your Brain

Without adequate sleep, your brain misfires, wreaking havoc with your ability to retain new information and form memories

How Sleep Helps Your BrainWhether you’re trying to keep track of all the birthday dates in your family calendar, or studying for an exam, sleep plays a starring role in the formation of memories. Being shortchanged on rest, even by a few hours, can impact the way your brain processes information and memories.

Stay sharp and get enough rest. That’s the bottom line, according to researchers who are delving deeper into the biology of sleep.

Protein’s role in memory formation

Jennifer Choi Tudor is a neuroscientist in the field of sleep at Saint Joseph University in Philadelphia, PA. She’s been studying the way sleep deficits affect a person’s ability to form memories, learn new things, etc. She has identified the importance of 4E binding protein 2 (4EBP2).

“Sleep deprivation can lead to a whole host of issues,” Tudor explains. “It can affect metabolism, the processing of waste and gene expression. But of particular importance, sleep deprivation impairs the critical process to make the necessary proteins to form memories, also known as translation.”

Tudor looked at the brain function of both sleep-deprived and well-rested lab mice and discovered that just five hours of extended wakefulness resulted in significant memory deficits. That’s the equivalent of someone who usually goes to bed around 11 p.m. staying up until 3 a.m., she explains.

When her research team was able to increase the level of 4EBP2, they were able to prevent memory deficits. In the future, scientists can look at whether boosting the amount of this protein in Alzheimer’s patients (who already have memory deficiencies) can help improve brain function.

Top tips on how to learn as you sleep

How Sleep Helps Your Brain Putting a book under your pillow is not going to make you smarter, but there are things you can do to help your brain absorb information. Here’s a hint: sound is key!

  • Learn foreign words—Listening to a language recording before bedtime may help you to order your next meal in Spanish, for example. Experiments found that sleepers who were exposed to foreign words while they slept could recall them much better than other participants who did things like walking while they attempted to learn.
  • Flaunt your newfound musical skills—In another study, a group of people were taught a guitar tune, then they took a nap. While they slept, the song was played to them. Upon waking, the nappers could play the song just as they’d heard it.
  • Find your car keys—Participants hid a virtual object on a computer screen while hearing a specific tune. Then they slept for 1.5 hours and were played the same tune while they napped. Once they were awake, they could recall the placement of the virtual object easily, while the non-nappers did not have those memories.
  • Cement an important memory—The importance of audio was again confirmed when a certain sound was associated with a specific memory. Scientists played those sounds while participants slept and, once again, they could recall those memories better than the group that did not hear anything.
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