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Remember What Happened? Only In Your Dreams!

It is by now well established that sleep can be an important tool when it comes to enhancing memory and learning skills. And now, a new study sheds light on the role that dreams play in this important process.

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Led by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), the new findings suggest that dreams may be the sleeping brain’s way of telling us that it is hard at work on the process of memory consolidation, integrating our recent experiences to help us with performance-related tasks in the short run and, in the long run, translating this material into information that will have widespread application to our lives. The study is reported in the April 22 On-line issue of Current Biology.

“What’s got us really excited, is that after nearly 100 years of debate about the function of dreams, this study tells us that dreams are the brain’s way of processing, integrating and really understanding new information,” explains senior author Robert Stickgold, PhD, Director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at BIDMC and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Dreams are a clear indication that the sleeping brain is working on memories at multiple levels, including ways that will directly improve performance.”

At the outset, the authors hypothesized that dreaming about a learning experience during nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep would lead to improved performance on a hippocampus-dependent spatial memory task. (The hippocampus is a region of the brain responsible for storing spatial memory.)

To test this hypothesis, the investigators had 99 subjects spend an hour training on a “virtual maze task,” a computer exercise in which they were asked to navigate through and learn the layout of a complex 3D maze with the goal of reaching an endpoint as quickly as possible. Following this initial training, participants were assigned to either take a 90-minute nap or to engage in quiet activities but remain awake. At various times, subjects were also asked to describe what was going through their minds, or in the case of the nappers, what they had been dreaming about. Five hours after the initial exercise, the subjects were retested on the maze task.

The results were striking.

The non-nappers showed no signs of improvement on the second test – even if they had reported thinking about the maze during their rest period. Similarly, the subjects who napped, but who did not report experiencing any maze-related dreams or thoughts during their sleep period, showed little, if any, improvement. But, the nappers who described dreaming about the task showed dramatic improvement, 10 times more than that shown by those nappers who reported having no maze-related dreams.

“These dreamers described various scenarios – seeing people at checkpoints in a maze, being lost in a bat cave, or even just hearing the background music from the computer game,” explains first author Erin Wamsley, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School. These interpretations suggest that not only was sleep necessary to “consolidate” the information, but that the dreams were an outward reflection that the brain had been busy at work on this very task.

Of particular note, say the authors, the subjects who performed better were not more interested or motivated than the other subjects. But, they say, there was one distinct difference that was noted.

“The subjects who dreamed about the maze had done relatively poorly during training,” explains Wamsley. “Our findings suggest that if something is difficult for you, it’s more meaningful to you and the sleeping brain therefore focuses on that subject – it ‘knows’ you need to work on it to get better, and this seems to be where dreaming can be of most benefit.”

Furthermore, this memory processing was dependent on being in a sleeping state. Even when a waking subject “rehearsed and reviewed” the path of the maze in his mind, if he did not sleep, then he did not see any improvement, suggesting that there is something unique about the brain’s physiology during sleep that permits this memory processing.

“In fact,” says Stickgold, “this may be one of the main goals that led to the evolution of sleep. If you remain awake [following the test] you perform worse on the subsequent task. Your memory actually decays, no matter how much you might think about the maze.

“We’re not saying that when you learn something it is dreaming that causes you to remember it,” he adds. “Rather, it appears that when you have a new experience it sets in motion a series of parallel events that allow the brain to consolidate and process memories.”

Ultimately, say the authors, the sleeping brain seems to be accomplishing two separate functions: While the hippocampus is processing information that is readily understandable (i.e. navigating the maze), at the same time, the brain’s higher cortical areas are applying this information to an issue that is more complex and less concrete (i.e. how to navigate through a maze of job application forms).

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“Our [nonconscious] brain works on the things that it deems are most important,” adds Wamsley. “Every day, we are gathering and encountering tremendous amounts of information and new experiences,” she adds. “It would seem that our dreams are asking the question, ‘How do I use this information to inform my life?’”

Study coauthors include BIDMC investigators Matthew Tucker, Joseph Benavides and Jessica Payne (currently of the University of Notre Dame).

This study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

BIDMC is a patient care, teaching and research affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks in the top four in National Institutes of Health funding among independent hospitals nationwide. BIDMC is a clinical partner of the Joslin Diabetes Center and a research partner of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Source: BIDMC

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April 27, 2010 Posted by | Books, brain, Cognition, Health Psychology, research | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Viva La Siesta!: A Nap Significantly Boosts the Brain’s Learning Capacity

BERKELEY — If you see a student dozing in the library or a co-worker catching 40 winks in her cubicle, don’t roll your eyes. New research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Indeed, the findings suggest that a biphasic sleep schedule not only refreshes the mind, but can make you smarter.

Conversely, the more hours we spend awake, the more sluggish our minds become, according to the findings. The results support previous data from the same research team that pulling an all-nighter — a common practice at college during midterms and finals — decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40 percent, due to a shutdown of brain regions during sleep deprivation.

“Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” said Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the lead investigator of these studies.

In the recent UC Berkeley sleep study, 39 healthy young adults were divided into two groups — nap and no-nap. At noon, all the participants were subjected to a rigorous learning task intended to tax the hippocampus, a region of the brain that helps store fact-based memories. Both groups performed at comparable levels.

At 2 p.m., the nap group took a 90-minute siesta while the no-nap group stayed awake. Later that day, at 6 p.m., participants performed a new round of learning exercises. Those who remained awake throughout the day became worse at learning. In contrast, those who napped did markedly better and actually improved in their capacity to learn.

Matthew Walker, assistant psychology professor, has found that a nap clears the brain to absorb new information.

These findings reinforce the researchers’ hypothesis that sleep is needed to clear the brain’s shor

Students who napped (green column) did markedly better in memorizing tests than their no-nap counterparts. (Courtesy of Matthew Walker)

t-term memory storage and make room for new information, said Walker, who presented his preliminary findings on Sunday, Feb. 21, at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego, Calif.

Since 2007, Walker and other sleep researchers have established that fact-based memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus before being sent to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which may have more storage space.

“It’s as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail. It’s just going to bounce until you sleep and move it into another folder,” Walker said.

In the latest study, Walker and his team have broken new ground in discovering that this memory-refreshing process occurs when nappers are engaged in a specific stage of sleep. Electroencephalogram tests, which measure electrical activity in the brain, indicated that this refreshing of memory capacity is related to Stage 2 non-REM sleep, which takes place between deep sleep (non-REM) and the dream state known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Previously, the purpose of this stage was unclear, but the new results offer evidence as to why humans spend at least half their sleeping hours in Stage 2, non-REM, Walker said.

“I can’t imagine Mother Nature would have us spend 50 percent of the night going from one sleep stage to another for no reason,” Walker said. “Sleep is sophisticated. It acts locally to give us what we need.”

Walker and his team will go on to investigate whether the reduction of sleep experienced by people as they get older is related to the documented decrease in our ability to learn as we age. Finding that link may be helpful in understanding such neurodegenerative conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, Walker said.

In addition to Walker, co-investigators of these new findings are  Bryce A. Mander and psychology undergraduate Sangeetha Santhanam.

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Source: University of California, Berkeley         http://www.berkeley.edu
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February 28, 2010 Posted by | Cognition, Education, Health Psychology, Positive Psychology, Resilience | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment