Kids, Language & Brains

2Apr/17Off

Does the Brain Sleep When We Sleep?

I think there's this pervasive misconception that your brain just turns off when you go to sleep, because there's no obvious output.  So says Professor Sara Aton from her University of Michigan lab.  Following this reasoning, many other scientists had no interest in the study of sleep as a research topic.  Yet Aton would beg to differ. Even though she and her team use mice as subjects in their sleep studies and are quick to note that translations from animal studies to human studies can be problematic, they are quite sure that, like mice brains, our brains keep working as we sleep. For Aton, while we're sleeping, our brains are learning. That's good to know because we spend a third of our lives sleeping.  Sleep is essential to our survival. Recent tools such as brain imaging show that some parts of the brain are actually more active during sleep.  Aton has found that sleep is critical for learning new things. When new memories form, the brain changes the structure and function of its neural circuits. Disrupting sleep disrupts those essential brain changes; sleep actually helps the brain absorb new experiences.   As an example, people studying new vocabulary words retain them better for the next day's quiz if they can sleep within three hours of first learning. Why?  Sleep is needed  in a certain window of time, along with activity in a particular part of the brain and protein synthesis in that circuit for the brain to retain new information.  As much as she values sleep, Aton's ongoing study of sleep aims to determine which aspects of sleep are necessary for memory formation in the brain and which aspects of sleep are sufficient to achieve the same thing.   Elizabeth Wason, Brain in the News, March 2017.  

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