Research Shows Memory and Sleep Linked

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Researchers from Washington University have found that a good night’s sleep enhances our memory and ability to execute tasks.

The research team has been studying the relationship between memory and sleep and has concluded that sleep enhances our ability to remember to do something in the future. This is known as prospective memory. The findings, researchers say, offer important contributions to the understanding of the role sleep plays in cognition as well as memory.

While there have been a great deal of sleep literature devoted to retrospective memory (things that have happened in the past), this study is the first to look at the relationship between sleep and prospective memory, the kind of memory put to work every day.

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The researchers found that sleeping enhances our ability to remember to complete a task in the future, which is known as prospective memory. "We think that during slow wave sleep the hippocampus is reactivating these recently learned memories, taking them up and placing them in long-term storage regions in the brain," stated Michael Scullin, doctoral candidate in psychology at the university.

“One of the more provocative findings we have is that sleep didn’t strengthen the link between the explicit cue, which is the person, and the intention, rather it strengthened the weak association and the intention,” said Mark McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and Scullin's advisor.

McDaniel said, “Sleep promoted the remembering to do the prospective memory task when that one context was present, but not when some other context was present,”

The researchers think that the prospective memory process occurs during slow wave sleep which is an early pattern in the sleep cycle that involve communication between the hippocampus and cortical regions. The hippocampus is a key factor in memory formation and reactivation and the cortical regions are keys to storing memories.

“We think that during slow wave sleep the hippocampus is reactivating these recently learned memories, taking them up and placing them in long-term storage regions in the brain,” Scullin says. “The physiology of slow wave sleep seems very conducive to this kind of memory strengthening.”

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