Sleep Makes Memories More Accessible, Researchers Find

By Amy Taylor on July 28, 2015

You know that sleeping is good for your cognitive health, particularly your memory. Not only does it strengthen long-term memories, but sleep also makes them easier to access, according to a new study. The new findings suggest that after sleep, we are more likely to recall facts which we could not remember while still awake.

The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Exeter and the Basque Centre for Cognition, Brain and Language, tracked memories for novel, made-up words learnt either prior to a night’s sleep, or an equivalent period of wakefulness. Subjects were asked to recall words immediately after exposure, and then again after the period of sleep or wakefulness.

Results suggest that among those who forgot information over the course of 12 hours of wakefulness, a night’s sleep was shown to promote access to memory traces that had initially been too weak to be retrieved.

"Sleep almost doubles our chances of remembering previously unrecalled material. The post-sleep boost in memory accessibility may indicate that some memories are sharpened overnight. This supports the notion that, while asleep, we actively rehearse information flagged as important. More research is needed into the functional significance of this rehearsal and whether, for instance, it allows memories to be accessible in a wider range of contexts, hence making them more useful." says Nicolas Dumay of the University of Exeter.

He believes the memory boost comes from the hippocampus, an inner structure of the temporal lobe, unzipping recently encoded episodes and replaying them to regions of the brain originally involved in their capture, which leads to the subjects effectively re-experiencing the major events of the day.

The study was published in the journal Cortex.

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