As technological advances continue to show the brain’s ability to rewire itself and heal the body with regards to things like chronic pain and addiction, the study of neural plasticity is also giving doctors and scientists a detailed look at how the brain’s plasticity helps us learn and remember. One key factor that could impact our learning ability and how we hold on to memories is sleep. How does sleep affect healthy brain function and stave off memory loss? One study done by the Institute of Neurology, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy seeks to answer that question.
Neural Plasticity, or brain plasticity, is the molding of the brain’s circuitry by new experiences, the building of new wiring patterns and the removal of others to make way for new growth. Plasticity is at work when we are exposed to repeated experiences and we now know that the brain can repair itself through this rewiring of neural circuits. Studies today are showing more and more detailed information about how we learn and remember and how it is tied to neural plasticity.
Learning and memory are typically described in three terms: acquisition, consolidation and recall. Acquisition is the introduction of new material into the brain, consolidation is the process by which memory becomes stable and recall is our ability to access the information that has been stored. Research done by the Harvard Medical School suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways: First, a sleep deprived person cannot focus and lack of attention impedes the ability to learn; and second, sleep has the ability to consolidate memory, essential for learning new information.
There is a general consensus that sleep is strictly tied to memory, learning and neural plasticity and studies into the affects of sleep on memory and learning are typically studied in two ways. The first approach looks at the stages of sleep in response to learning a task and the second examines how sleep deprivation affects learning. According to one study by the Institute of Neurology in Rome, sleep has a functional role in restoring the brain’s synapse strength to optimal energy level, therefore strengthening learning, memory and performance gain.
Conversely, when a person is sleep deprived the testing shows that the brain has a lesser ability to reactivate the regions in the brain involved in learning. In addition, our ability to focus suffers and it may affect our interpretation of events. This can lead to improperly assessing a situation, making bad decisions and poor planning ability due to impaired judgment. Feeling tired to the point of fatigue means that our muscles are not rested, our neurons do not fire optimally and our body’s organ systems are not synchronized so it is easy to see how sleep plays a significant role in not only our ability to learn and retain information, but also in our overall health.