Learning

When Deep Sleep Is Disturbed, Your Ability to Learn Suffers

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Every time you have a good night's sleep, you can rest easy (pun intended) knowing that your brain is getting the support it needs. Researchers have long known that deep sleep and learning are related, but a May 2017 Swiss study has finally discovered a causal connection—that is, they've proven that deep sleep actually helps the learning process.

Catch Some Deep Z's

When you spend the night tossing and turning, your brain feels like a pile of mush the next day. No matter how hard you try to comprehend the new system they've adopted at work, it just won't compute. But why? Your brain is pretty high maintenance—in order to learn efficiently, it requires not only sleep, but deep sleep. 

For a study published in Nature Communications in 2017, researchers from Zurich, Switzerland developed a new, non-invasive way to disturb deep sleep in people's motor cortex. They recruited six men and women to sleep in the lab overnight, once with regular deep sleep, and again after a night of manipulated sleep. The day after each night of sleep, they were asked to participate in a "learning assessment" where they were trained to tap their fingers in a particular order. The participants felt like they had the same quality of sleep both nights, but there was a marked decrease in their ability to learn the new tasks after the night of disturbed sleep.

Manipulate For A Cause

Previous research could only associate the ability to learn with the quality of sleep, since both poor sleep quality and poor learning could be due to some third element. With these new results, the researchers proved that the quality of your sleep has a real effect on your learning efficiency. So, mom was right—be sure to catch some Z's before a big day at school (or work)!

Since their new technique can directly manipulate sleep in specific brain regions, the scientists hope to use it in clinical studies of diseases that pop up during sleep, like epilepsy. By manipulating the specific brain regions that are connected with the disease, they may be able to help affected patients.

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