Magazine article Science News

Awake and Learning: Memory Storage Begins before Bedtime

Magazine article Science News

Awake and Learning: Memory Storage Begins before Bedtime

Article excerpt

Learning isn't a task that just happens overnight. While research has suggested that a good night's sleep aids in memory storage, some memory is processed while a person is still awake, a new study finds.

Previous research in both people and animals has found that the parts of the brain engaged in learning a task reactivate during sleep, perhaps transferring a memory from short-term to long-term storage (SN: 10/11/03, p. 228).

But sleep may account for only a few steps in the transfer process, says Philippe Peigneux, a neuroscientist at the University of Liege in Belgium. Rather than passively holding on to memories until bedtime, the wakeful brain may get a head start on memory consolidation.

To learn what happens to these memories during waking hours, Peigneux and his colleagues imaged the brains of 15 volunteers to determine how quickly they learned lessons from several tasks.

In the study, each participant spent 30 minutes learning either a spatial or a procedural task. In the spatial task, the subjects studied and then navigated routes through a virtual town to locate an object. In the procedural task, participants learned to press a button corresponding to each of four positions of a dot that appeared in a repeating sequence on a screen.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) immediately before and after each learning episode. During the scan, a subject performed a separate, distracting task that didn't require any learning.

After a 30-minute break, the team scanned the subjects' brains a third time. …

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