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UMass researchers link sleep habits to learning

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have been watching students while they sleep – all in the name of science. A recent study conducted at UMass has been attempting to clear up the sometimes murky connection between aging, memory and sleep.

According to principal investigator, Rebecca Spencer, sleep is very beneficial to memory.

“We have looked at healthy young adults and see that when you learn something and sleep before being tested, you do better than if you learn the material and are awake before being tested,” said Spencer, who is also an assistant-professor in Psychology, and Director of the Cognition and Action Lab.

Spencer claims that part of the research includes what effect aging has on the memory of an individual. There is a possibility that motor learning, which is important for the quality of movements, may be heavily affected during sleep.

“Our recent results suggest that it’s because they aren’t getting enough continuous time in the critical sleep stages,” she said.

The problem as a person ages may not be with the amount of sleep that a person gets on a given night, but the overall quality of the sleep.

Sleep can be broken up into five different stages, ranging from light sleep to deeper slumbers. Most dreaming occurs during Rapid Eye Movement, which accounts for about 20 percent of a night’s sleep.

Motor learning is heavily influenced during Non-Rapid Eye Movement (nREM-2) sleep. Younger people are less interrupted during that cycle of sleep compared to aging adults, which may provide connections between sleep and memory.

Part of the issue is that adults may get the same amount of sleep as a typical college student, but the information and memory isn’t being retained as well. However, most adults get less sleep as they age. Although adults may sleep less as they get older, the nREM-2 stage of sleep may actually be maintained, or can even increase.

Spencer also added that the benefits are important for college students as well. “This seems really useful for college students to know,” she said. “Having healthy sleep habits is really important to optimal academic performance.”

She also noted that continuous interruption during nREM-2 stage of sleep will have negative outcomes.

“If you were learning lyrics to a song and the CD kept skipping or you stopped and started at a different place, it would be pretty hard to learn,” she stated.

Not only is sleep deprivation harmful to individuals, but sleeping right after learning will actually enhance the retake of the material which was just learned.

The test currently being conducted includes having a subject perform a single task a night. The individual is then asked to repeat the same task in the morning, and the results are compared between the two times.

The research, which was funded through a grant by the National Institute on Aging, seeks to determine why adults lose out on the benefits of sleep as they continue to age. The total aid awarded was $750,000.

Part of the research also includes a look into emotional memory, where sleep will enhance the storage of the memory depending on the overall importance. This advantage is primarily seen in younger people, and research is being done to determine if neutral and emotional memories are benefited by sleep in older adults.

The grant was awarded last February, and the researchers have about two more years of work still ahead. After the results have been determined, a new question will be posed, and the research will be taken on again from there.

“For instance, are there ways we can enhance this weak sleep benefit in older adults, for example, with exercise or providing memory cues during sleep?,” pondered Spencer.

The National Institute on Aging is a division of the National Institute of Health, and conducts research relating to aging processes and special diseases and problems related to aging.

The Cognition and Action Lab is still looking for individuals between the ages of 50 and 80 to take place in the tests. People who are interested must exhibit typical sleep patterns, with no sleeping disorders and over five hours of sleep a night.

All interested may apply at siestalab@gmail.com or call 413-545-4831.

Tim Jones can be reached at timothyj@student.umass.edu.

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