A new study done by NYU Langone Medical Center researchers shows that sleeping right after learning something enhances the connections between brain cells.

Sleep encourages the growth of dendritic spines, branches that extend from neurons that help relay signals and boost communication. These might prove to be critical in the improvement of memory.

The study used mice to see how see how sleep can affect the neural connection in the motor cortex, which is an area of the brain that is used in movement. Wen-Biao Gan, one of the study’s authors and a professor of neuroscience and physiology at NYU Langone Medical Center, described the implication of the team’s research.

“Here we’ve shown how sleep helps neurons form very specific connections on dendritic branches that may facilitate long-term memory. We also show how different types of learning form synapses on different branches of the same neurons, suggesting that learning causes very specific structural changes in the brain.”

While most people may consider sleep be a restful state, the researchers are actually proving otherwise. While a person sleeps,their brain remain alert and very much active. Brain cells busily try to take in all the information learned during the day and ingrain it into the brain. This occurs during deep sleep, which is also referred to as slow-wave sleep.

Dr. Gan and his team used genetically engineered mouse models to study how this process occurs. They used a fluorescent protein in the motor cortex to visualize the growth of the dendritic spines. The brains of the mice were looked at after they learned how to spin on a rod.

“Imagine a tree that grows leaves (spines) on one branch but not another branch. When we learn something new, it’s like we’re sprouting leaves on a specific branch,” said Dr. Gan.

The researchers found that after only six hours of learning, new spines were beginning to extend from dendritic branches of brain cells. They noticed that the mice they let sleep after the experiment grew far more spines than the mice who were not able to sleep. That indicates that sleeping after learning will help ingrain the new skills and memories in the brain, making learning more effective.

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