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How sleep can help you learn

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Title: Trøtt student, Originator: West Coast Surfer, Rightsholder: NTB,


The acquisition of new information involves the creation of new synapses in animal nervous systems. If continued indefinitely, the process would quickly become unsustainable, both because of the energetic cost associated with maintaining an excessive number of neuronal connections; and because of skull space limitations. Studies in the animal model suggest that sleep plays an active role in removing the synapses formed during the day that are not strictly necessary for survival.

Sleep thus promotes learning by creating the space and resources needed to acquire new information during the following wake period.

To explore how learning-related synaptic plasticity phenomena are modulated by sleep deprivation in humans, Salehinejad and colleagues used the method of transcranial magnetic stimulation. In short, by generating a magnetic field in proximity of participants’ head, the underlying cerebral cortex can be activated in a completely noninvasive manner. Particular activation sequences can induce synaptic changes comparable to that of learning, as if the participant had actually acquired new information.

Comparing the results obtained from 30 participants studied after both a night of sleep and a night of wakefulness, the authors showed that sleep deprivation leads to an overall increase in cortical excitability and to the reduced ability to form new synapses. Both results are consistent with an excess of synaptic connections that a night of sleep would have removed. Behaviorally, these neurophysiological changes were paralleled by a reduced performance in learning tests.

These results help explain what happens in the nervous system of a sleep deprived human being and confirm that sleep is required to ensure our ability to learn.

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Simone Bruno

Source: Mohammad Ali Salehinejad, Elham Ghanavati, Jörg Reinders, Jan G Hengstler, Min-Fang Kuo, Michael A Nitsche (2022) Sleep-dependent upscaled excitability, saturated neuroplasticity, and modulated cognition in the human brain. eLife 11:e69308.

Link: Sleep-dependent upscaled excitability, saturated neuroplasticity, and modulated cognition in the human brain | eLife (