Researchers at Northwestern University have found that sleep can enhance a person's ability to learn challenging motor tasks as it helps the brain in processing and focusing on a new skill. In their study, the researchers found that the participants were able to perform faster and more efficiently than if they did not get extra rest.
During the experiment, the researchers asked the participants to perform challenging motor tasks through a computer game. The authors paired each command to move the cursor in a particular direction with a unique sound. After practicing, participants played the game blindfolded and moved the cursor based on the corresponding sounds alone.
Some of the participants were then asked to take a 90-minute nap and were able to perform the motions better than those who did not. The team believes this approach could enhance rehabilitation therapies for stroke patients and other neurological disorders.
"We used targeted memory reactivation or TMR, whereby a stimulus that has been associated with learning is presented again during sleep to bring on a recapitulation of waking brain activity," the researchers said.
They added that their demonstration that memory reactivation contributed to skilled performance may be relevant for neurorehabilitation and other fields that involve motor learning, such as kinesiology and physiology.
The researchers also noted that the present findings support the conclusion that execution-based components of motor skills can be reactivated during sleep, resulting in better performance after. (Related: Nap desks cash in on sleep deprivation epidemic by letting workers sleep at the office.)
Furthermore, the findings open the door to future applications of TMR to augment learning. "Nightly TMR may even be useful in a clinical context to supplement daily rehabilitation efforts for patients hoping to decrease motor impairments due to stroke or neurological dysfunction," the researchers added.
It is not clear why short naps are beneficial for alertness and focus. The working theory is that napping helps the brain clean up sleep-inducing waste products that would otherwise inhibit brain activity. Short naps may help improve attention by letting sleepy areas of the brain recover. This prevents instability in the brain's networks.
Short naps help increase energy, but longer naps prove to be more restorative and beneficial for learning. For instance, it can help prove activation of the hippocampus, which is an important area of the brain for learning and memory. A one to two-hour afternoon nap can be beneficial to motor skills as well as the ability to recall facts and events.
A study from China also suggested that regular afternoon napping is linked to better cognitive function in older adults. In a group of more than 2,200 adults over the age of 70, the researchers found that those who napped were less likely to have cognitive impairments than those who didn't. This remained true regardless of age or level of education.
However, nap length does play a role. A similar study showed that those who napped for 30 to 90 minutes had better overall cognition compared to those who napped for longer or shorter, or those who did not nap at all.
Longer naps are more restorative as there is time to enter multiple sleep stages, each of which supports difficult learning processes. For instance, during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the brain is almost as active as when it is awake. This activity in different brain regions may help explain why REM sleep supports both long-term and emotional memory.
Read more about how you can improve your brain function with enough sleep at Mental.news.