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How sleep can help with learning and memory

Getting a good night’s sleep is not only helpful to one’s beauty regime but is also key to improving learning and memory, according to academics.

A team of researchers in China and the US have observed new connections between brain cells developing during sleep. The scientists from New York University School of Medicine and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School used advanced microscopy to see how these synapses were formed.

The study, published in the journal Science, provides insight into the mechanisms of memory.

The researchers trained mice to walk on a rotating rod and then used microscopes to look at the living brain of the animals when they were either sleeping or deprived of sleep. The study showed the mice that had more sleep formed considerably more connections between brain cells, indicating that they were learning more.

Professor Wen-Biao Gan from New York University told the BBC: “Finding out sleep promotes new connections between neurons is new, nobody knew this before.

“We thought sleep helped, but it could have been other causes, and we show it really helps to make connections and that in sleep the brain is not quiet, it is replaying what happened during the day and it seems quite important for making the connections.”

According to the research, deep sleep was needed to form memories, and those mice that were sleep deprived or had their sleep disrupted formed fewer memories of the task. The study also showed that stepping up the amount of training could not make up for the loss of sleep.

The importance of sleep has been the focus of a number of studies in recent years, with researchers claiming that people who manage less than six hours a night are more likely to die earlier. High blood pressure and heart disease are also more common among people who sleep for less than six hours.

But what are the implications for education? The researchers behind the latest study suggested that students might be better served by ensuring that they got a full night’s sleep, rather than trying to study late into the night.

Richard Vaughan

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. How does a good night’s sleep affect you on a day to day basis?
  2. What are some of the reasons that people get less sleep than they should?
  3. Do you think that research into sleep is important? Explain your reasons.
  4. Design a poster or write a speech to encourage young people to get more sleep.

Relevant resources

Sleep assembly
Make sure your students know about the importance of sleep with this light hearted assembly presentation with accompanying script.

What’s wrong with too much caffeine?
Read this article from The Wellcome Trust and discuss the effects of caffeine on sleep and wellbeing.

Eating, sleeping and learning
Find out how good eating and sleeping habits can improve your learning and performance in school.

Sleep states workbook
Learn and revise the different types and stages of sleep throughout the human lifespan with this comprehensive workbook pack.

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