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Study helps to settle debate on roles of REM and non-REM sleep in visual learning

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Study helps to settle debate on roles of REM and non-REM sleep in visual learning

A study by a team of Brown University researchers sheds new light on the complementary roles of REM and non-REM sleep in visual perceptual learning.

Which sleep stage is most important for learning: REM or non-REM? Does sleep improve learning by enhancing skills while people snooze, or by cementing those skills in the brain so that they’re less likely to forget them? Do these processes occur every time someone sleeps, or only after they have learned something new?

A new study from Brown University found that plasticity and stabilization occur during different stages of sleep.

During non-REM (NREM) sleep, the visual areas of participants’ brains exhibited an E/I balance suggestive of increased plasticity. The pattern was found even among participants who did not partake in the visual learning tasks, which means that it occurs even in the absence of learning.

However, the REM stage appears to be necessary for people to reap the benefits of the increased plasticity they exhibit during NREM sleep. During REM sleep, the chemical concentrations in participants’ brains indicated that their visual areas underwent stabilization. (This process occurred only in the participants who partook in the visual learning tasks, which suggests that, in contrast to plasticity, stabilization during sleep occurs only in the presence of learning.)

Participants who only underwent NREM sleep did not exhibit any performance gains, likely because the new, post-sleep task interfered with their learning of the pre-sleep task. Conversely, those who underwent both NREM and REM sleep exhibited significant performance gains for both the pre-sleep and post-sleep task.

“I hope this helps people realize that both non-REM sleep and REM sleep are important for learning,” Sasaki said. “When people sleep at night, there are many sleep cycles. REM sleep appears at least three, four, five times, and especially in the later part of the night. We want to have lots of REM sleep to help us remember more robustly, so we shouldn’t shorten our sleep.”

Going forward, Sasaki and her colleagues would like to see if their findings can be generalized to other types of learning. They would also like to combine this research with their past research on visual perceptual learning and reward.

“Previously, we showed that reward enhances visual learning through sleep, so we’d like to understand how that works,” she said. “It’s ambitious, but maybe we could expand this research to other types of learning so we could remember better and develop better motor learning, better visual skills and better creativity.”

Study helps to settle debate on roles of REM and non-REM sleep in visual learning was originally published by the National Eye Institute.”

https://www.nei.nih.gov/about/news-and-events/news/study-helps-settle-debate-roles-rem-and-non-rem-sleep-visual-learning

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