Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 22nd 2017 Contents B26 body & soul
guardian.co.tt Thursday, June 22, 2017
Most of us know that a good night's sleep is
key for happiness and productivity, and that
conversely, a night of poor sleep can have neg-
ative effects on our performance during the day.
But a new study manages to find precisely the
brain area responsible for learning new skills
and shows how it can be affected by poor sleep
A team of researchers from the University of Zurich
(UZH) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
(ETH) in Zurich, both in Switzerland, set out to ex-
amine the effect of a disturbed deep sleep phase on
the brain's ability to learn new things.
More specifically, the new study---published in
the journal Nature Communications---looks at the
brain's ability to change and adapt in response to
the stimuli that it receives from the environment,
or neuroplasticity, in the motor cortex and how it is
affected by deep sleep.
The motor cortex is the brain area responsible for
developing and controlling motor skills, and the deep
sleep phase---also called slow-wave sleep---is key for
memory formation and processing, as well as for help-
ing the brain to restore itself after a day of activity.
The study involved six women and seven men who
were asked to perform motoric tasks during the day
following a night of unperturbed sleep, and after a
night during which their deep sleep had been dis-
turbed. The tasks involved learning a series of finger
movements, and the researchers were able to locate
precisely the brain area responsible for learning
Using an electroencephalogram, the researchers
monitored the brain activity of the participants while
they were sleeping. On the first day of the experi-
ment---after the first movement learning session---the
participants were able to sleep without disturbance.
On the second night, however, the researchers ma-
nipulated the participants' sleep quality. They were
able to focus on the motor cortex and disrupt their
deep sleep, thus investigating the impact that poor
sleep has on the neuroplasticity involved in practicing
The participants did not know that their deep sleep
phase had been tampered with. To them, the quality
of their sleep was roughly the same on both occasions.
Next, the researchers evaluated the participants'
ability to learn new movements. In the morning, the
subjects' learning performance was at its highest,
as expected. However, as the day progressed, they
continued to make more and more mistakes. Again,
this was expected.
After a night of restorative sleep, the participants'
learning efficiency spiked again. But after their night
of manipulated sleep, their learning efficiency did
not improve as significantly. In fact, the morning
after a night of manipulated sleep, the participants'
performance was as low as on the evening of the
The reason why this happens, according to the re-
searchers, is that during the manipulated deep sleep,
the neurons' synapses did not "rest" as they normally
would during restorative sleep.
During the day, our synapses get excited as a re-
sponse to the stimuli that surround us. During sleep,
however, these synapses restore themselves and their
activity "normalizes." Without this restorative peri-
od, the synapses stay maximally excited for too long.
Such a state inhibits neuroplasticity, which means
that learning new things is no longer possible.
"In the strongly excited region of the brain, learn-
ing efficiency was saturated and could no longer be
changed, which inhibited the learning of motor skills,"
explains co-lead author Nicole Wenderoth, professor
in the Department of Health Sciences and Technology
at the ETH Zurich.
To ensure that they located the right brain area
responsible for deep sleep, the researchers repeated
the experiment by assigning the same task but ma-
nipulating a different region of the brain. This did not
result in any changes to the participants' performance.
This is the first time that a study has proven the
causal connection between deep sleep and learning
Reto Huber, professor at the University Children's
Hospital Zurich and of child and adolescent psychiatry
at UZH, comments on the significance of the study:
"We have developed a method that lets us reduce the
sleep depth in a certain part of the brain and therefore
prove the causal connection between deep sleep and
learning efficiency [...] Many diseases manifest in
sleep as well, such as epilepsy. Using the new method,
we hope to be able to manipulate those specific brain
regions that are directly connected with the disease."
How sleep and learning are connected
If you want your child (or yourself) to
learn well, a good, uninterrupted night's
sleep is essential, a new study finds.
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