Take a long distance trip in a bus, train or plane and you’ll see fellow Indians immediately nod off, no matter what time of day. By one estimate 93% of Indians are sleep deprived, putting Indians high on the list of the world’s most sleep deprived people. That is bad news in many ways, but new research suggests that lack of sleep may also negatively impact memory. The researchers say that sleep is necessary to helps us remember new experiences.
According to Ron Davis, senior author of the study, this study used a novel approach to memory research. He and his colleagues at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in Florida looked into the process of how people forget, rather than how human beings store memories, like previous research. What they found is that sleep helps us store memories by hindering the mechanism of forgetting.
“Far less attention has been paid to forgetting, which is a fundamental function for the brain and potentially has profound consequences for the development of memory therapeutics,” Davis said.
Davis’s team combined neuroscience with the psychology of forgetting to infer certain conclusions. They took into account that previous psychology studies point out that sleep helps with securing memories by quieting mental and behavioural activity. Neuroscience, they note, points out that sleep can improve memory stability (or consolidation).
Researchers used computer models of animal to observe the biological workings seen in earlier psychology studies. These previous studies found that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a role in memory retention. Dopamine adjusts the brain’s ability to change in response to learning and forming memories, as well as forgetting.
They found that prolonging sleep decreased the effect of dopamine and thereby improved memory preservation. They also noticed that when the animal model was put in a more alert state, the response to dopamine increased and so did forgetting.
According to Davis, the results “add compelling evidence to support the model that sleep reduces the forgetting signal in the brain, thereby keeping memories intact. As sleep progresses to deeper levels, dopamine neurons become less reactive to stimuli and this leads to more stable memories.”
First author Jacob A. Berry explained, “Importantly, we have revealed that one of the ways sleep protects a new memory is by quieting dopamine neuron activity that causes forgetting. Since laboratory animals and humans share a need for sleep, as well as many genetic and circuit mechanisms underlying learning and memory, our findings may shed light on the mechanisms underlying the interaction between sleep and memory in humans.”
So for people who find that they have a hard time remembering events, tasks or the names of people they just met, lack of sleep may be one explanation. Getting more sleep may help improve memory.
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The study is published in the journal Cell.