I no longer have to take exams (except for recent on-line traffic school), nor do most of my contemporaries. But we all have to maintain our learning and memory skills in order to live our daily lives and to perform adequately or hopefully, better than adequately, in our professions. Even if we don’t have to take academic tests, our children and grandchildren do. And we all stay up for hours in front of our computers, iPads and tablets trying to get our work done, making sure we have not forgotten something or are not behind in our virtual lives. It seems that everyone crams, often at the expense of sleep. Well, it turns out that the best way to study for an exam, prepare for that next day’s task or keep the necessary data going in our brain’s memory is to get a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that even a little sleep loss may impair our memory and learning skills.
This was the conclusion of research presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans this past week, reported in JAMA. A team of researchers from Pennsylvania studied the effects of a single night of lost sleep on 22 healthy adults who agreed to stay in the lab for five days and undergo brain imaging and memory testing. (I’m not sure how anyone could sleep in a lab but hey, research of this nature requires consenting adults who agree to have sleep-overs in strange places.) The participants were tested after a normal night of sleep and then after a night of sleep deprivation and then once more after two nights of “recovery sleep”. Lo and behold, the participants didn’t perform well on memory tasks after a sleepless night. And when imaging tests were done, their sleep deprived brains had decreased connectivity between the hippocampus (where memory is stored) and other areas of the brain necessary for performance of memory tests and tasks. It was as though parts of their brains had gone to sleep (or strike), in protest of the forced state of sleep deprivation.
The good new is that needed memory connectivity was not lost for long after a night of lost sleep. In the study, the brain connections and the participants’ performance on memory tasks were back to normal after a couple of nights of recovery sleep.
Bottom line: If you get a good night’s sleep you’ll be more likely to remember what you just read and what you should do with the information the next day…I usually write articles telling you to eat right, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, get the appropriate diagnostic tests, therapies, medications and immunizations. This time my advice should be somewhat more relaxing… sleep well.