Why Sleep is Needed to Form Memories

Posted 19 Feb 2009 at 20:18 UTC by steve Share This

It's widely known that sleep is crucial to the formation of memories but scientists haven't understood exactly why that was the case until now. According to a news release, researchers at the Pennsylvania School of Medicine have discovered the answer at the molecular level. The discovery was made by studying the neural response of animals with one eye blindfolded to a color bar pattern (represented in the optical polar maps of the visual cortex above). Researcher Marcos G. Frank commented:

"We find that the biochemical changes are simply not happening in the neurons of animals that are awake. And when the animal goes to sleep it's like you’ve thrown a switch, and all of a sudden, everything is turned on that's necessary for making synaptic changes that form the basis of memory formation. It's very striking."

It turns out a molecule called an N-methyl D-aspartate receptor triggers a series of enzymes that allow neurons to make and break connections, reorganizing the neural network. Not surprisingly, the first thing suggested after the discovery was the development of drugs that could mimick the molecular events of sleep, eliminating the effects of not sleeping.

Sleep - the underappreciated subroutine, posted 19 Feb 2009 at 22:27 UTC by Rog-a-matic » (Master)

It's been known for quite some time that consolidation of memories from short term to longer term areas is a key function of sleep, but it's great to learn more details about the chemistry involved.

Still, I'm not sure I'd be interested in taking a drug to avoid the daily bliss called sleep. My appreciation of sleep might be slightly skewed due to my personal history with the process :)

I'm highly confident that most people underestimate its value and impact on how they feel and function. And I'm certain the world would be a better place the day after everyone got 9 hours of sleep.

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