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How Sleep Helps the Brain Learn Motor Tasks

August 21, 2013
Sleep Waves

Certain "slow wave" sleep brainwave oscillations changed in a particular region of the brain once subjects were trained in a motor task.  Credit: Photos by Mike Cohea/Brown University

Sleep helps the brain consolidate what we've learned, but scientists have struggled to determine what goes on in the brain to make that happen for different kinds of learned tasks. In a new study, researchers, including postdoctoral researcher Masako Tamaki, pinpoint the brainwave frequencies and brain region associated with sleep-enhanced learning of a sequential finger tapping task akin to typing, or playing piano. 

"The mechanisms of memory consolidations regarding motor memory learning were still uncertain until now," said Tamaki, lead author of the study that appeared Aug. 21 in the Journal of Neuroscience. "We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness. We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep."

In part because it employed three different kinds of brain scans, the research is the first to precisely quantify changes among certain brainwaves and the exact location of that changed brain activity in subjects as they slept after learning a sequential finger-tapping task. The task was a sequence of key punches that is cognitively akin to typing or playing the piano.

Read more of David Orenstein's article on sleep.