A research study at a US university has strengthened the theory that deep sleep is a crucial state for memory formation and strengthening. The investigation at Northwestern University tested twelve participants on a spatial and audio exercise prior to a deep sleep session, during which several related sounds were played. The volunteers were then retested on the same exercise, in order to assess any changes in performance.
Although the participants were unaware of the sounds that were played to them during their sleep, the researchers found that their ability to carry out the exercise improved in the areas that the sounds related to. The process suggests a form of sub-conscious rehearsal directed by the specific sounds.
The results of the study sheds new light on the brain’s ability to process memories during deep sleep, a function that was previously linked to REM sleep states.
"The research strongly suggests that we don't shut down our minds during deep sleep," said John Rudoy, lead author of the study and a neuroscience Ph.D. student at Northwestern. "Rather this is an important time for consolidating memories."
"While asleep, people might process anything that happened during the day, what they ate for breakfast, television shows they watched, anything," said Ken Paller, senior author of the study and professor at Northwestern. "But we decided which memories our volunteers would activate, guiding them to rehearse some of the locations they had learned an hour earlier. We are beginning to see that deep sleep actually is a key time for memory processing "
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