Sleep Tied to Memory and Learning
These questions have intrigued scientists for generations, however a new study published in the journal Science may have provided the most specific answers yet to why sleep is important to learning and retention of memory.
Using advanced microscopy to examine the brain, the study uncovered the specific mechanisms of memory. There are connections between brain cells that form while we sleep, and these brain cells (synapses) need rest to retain what we have learned. The likely conclusion is that if we do not get enough sleep at night, we cannot retain what we have learned during the day.
"Finding out sleep promotes new connections between neurons is new, nobody knew this before," said Prof. Wen-Biao Gan of New York University in an interview with the BBC. These studies "...show it really helps to make connections [in the brain] 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."
The study, carried out by a team of Chinese and American researchers was published in a recent issue of the medical journal, "Science." Working on the study were principals at New York University School of Medicine and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School.
The team trained mice to walk on top of a rotating rod, a new skill. To determine how their brains received this new training, the scientists used a microscope to look inside the living brains when the mice were sleeping for one study and when the mice became sleep deprived for a second experiment.
Mice performed up to an hour's training followed by sleep. They were compared with mice training intensively for three hours but then intentionally sleep deprived. The sleepers performed better and their brains formed significantly more new connections between neurons - connections between two brain cells — they were learning more by "replaying" their activities from the day.
Sleep deprivation has been cited as a probable cause for obesity, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, infection and cancer. The restorative qualities of healthful sleep nourishes not only memory and the ability to learn (as the recent studies indicate) but can be powerful ways to stave off disease by helping the mechanisms that restore cell health in the body, scientists surmise.
What can you do if sleep eludes?
While it's becoming increasingly clear that a good night's sleep is key to good health, other data shows that Americans are getting less sleep than ever. Many physicians prescribe sleeping medication but studies show that good "sleep hygiene" performs better at restoring regular sleeping patterns.
Turning off computers and mobile devices several hours before bed is helpful, as is establishing a nightly calming ritual. One way to soothe the nerves and trigger sleep is to consume a relaxing herbal tea at the same time each night.
Consider the timeless, soothing qualities of chamomile tea. These fragrant, silky flowers offer a delicate beverage that calms and relaxes without the stimulants found in true tea. Adagio selects only the finest crops from the Nile Valley of Egypt, home to the world's best chamomile flowers, and offers them to you in either our pyramid tea bags or whole flowers.
Steep at 212° for five to ten minutes. Drink hot with a dab of honey or drink plain.
Other ideas for sleep-inducing herbal are located on our herbal tea page. Any of these teas (except Mate, which contains caffeine) are good for soothing the nerves and calming the body before sleep.