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Sleep to remember or remember to sleep?

By on January 27, 2015
Picture courtesy of marin and freedigitalphotos.net

You probably remember that we need to sleep to form new memories. But the full extent of the relationship between sleep and memory is still mysterious. However it appears that not only does memory depend upon sleep to form, with lack of sleep preventing new memories from being formed, but that memory itself has a controlling influence on sleep.

It seems that the part of the brain responsible of the formation of new memories (the hippocampus in human beings)  influences sleep. Sometimes the hippocampus might send messages to the rest of the brain telling it to “stay awake!” This happens when the brain is learning something new an interesting. You have probably experienced this when involved in playing some new game, reading a fascinating book, or watching a captivating TV show.

At other times, your hippocampus might tell your brain to “sleep now!” This happens when your hippocampus decides it needs to consolidate new learnings before they are lost. You have probably experienced this when you have been studying and suddenly hit a wall. By the way, ignoring these signals, for example pulling an ‘all nighted’ at college, is counter-productive if you are trying to cram for an exam as you are likely remembering very little!

These mechanisms that mediate between memory and sleep are little understood. Except in the case of the humble fly, as in the scientific research below. They may not be college graduates, but they are teaching us a lot about memory mechanisms!

The relationship between sleep and memory. A single pair of neurons links sleep to memory consolidation in Drosophila melanogaster

Picture courtesy of marin and freedigitalphotos.net

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