Past research has revealed that during certain sleep stages, memory is processed and stored, and sleep may also provide time to repair DNA damage.
Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have confirmed another important function of sleep. The team found that sleep deprivation in mice negatively impacted the brain’s ability to learn and take in new information.
It’s thought that during sleep, synapses in the hippocampus, the small gaps where signals pass from neuron to neuron, are recalibrated to prepare for new learning. The synapses which are strengthened throughout the day are weakened to allow for the intake of new information.
The hippocampus is the region of the brain that helps with long-term memory storage and spatial memory. Remembering where you put your keys or the route you take to work every day is an example of spatial memory.
Since memory consolidation is such a core part of sleep, it’s not surprising that another important sleep function plays out in the synapses in the hippocampus.
For the study, the researchers monitored synapse strength in lab mice that were awake for six to seven hours and compared that to when the mice were asleep for the same amount of time.
When the mice were forced to stay awake, and they interacted with new stimulating activities and objects, synapse strength was at its strongest.
The researchers say this helps prove that the hippocampus plays an essential role in learning and that sleep helps recalibrate the brain, resetting the synapses to take in new information when awake,
The results of the study were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer
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