A new study has found a direct link between sleep and the creation of long-term memories.
Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine have discovered a cluster of cells in the fruit-fly brain that controls sleep. By manipulating those cells, scientists were able to establish long-term memories in fruit flies by controlling their sleep habits. Using their ability to control the fruit flies’ sleep, the scientists tested the insects’ ability to learn — and retain — information. Here’s how they did it, and what they found:
- As a test of learning, researchers exposed male fruit flies to other male flies that had been engineered to smell like female fruit flies.
- After a few unsuccessful mating attempts, the flies learned not to court these female-in-disguise flies.
- Without sleep, the fruit flies retained this knowledge of the pretend-female flies for a short period of time, amounting to a few hours.
- Scientists put their fruit-fly subjects to sleep after the courtship training. With sleep, the fruit flies were able to retain the same information for several days. Sleep enabled the fruit flies to convert short-term knowledge into long-term memory.
We’ve long known that there was a relationship between sleep, memory and learning. You don’t have to be a scientist to have a sense of this. Think about your typical state of mind — and your inclination to retain new information — at the end of a long, busy day.
Our brains use sleep as the time to determine what information can be discarded, and what is useful enough that it should be stored as longer-term memories.
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