February 1, 2011
Science Daily/Society for Neuroscience
After a good night's sleep, people remember information better when they know it will be useful in the future, according to a new study in the Feb. 2 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings suggest that the brain evaluates memories during sleep and preferentially retains the ones that are most relevant.
"Our results show that memory consolidation during sleep indeed involves a basic selection process that determines which of the many pieces of the day's information is sent to long-term storage," Born said. "Our findings also indicate that information relevant for future demands is selected foremost for storage."
Some, but not all, of the volunteers were allowed to sleep between the time they learned the tasks and the tests. As the authors expected, the people who slept performed better than those who didn't. But more importantly, only the people who slept and knew a test was coming had substantially improved memory recall.
The researchers also recorded electroencephalograms (EEG) from the individuals who were allowed to sleep. They found an increase in brain activity during deep or "slow wave" sleep when the volunteers knew they would be tested for memory recall.
"The more slow wave activity the sleeping participants had, the better their memory was during the recall test 10 hours later," Born said. Scientists have long thought that sleep is important in memory consolidation. The authors suggest that the brain's prefrontal cortex "tags" memories deemed relevant while awake and the hippocampus consolidates these memories during sleep.