Falling asleep during a class may not necessarily be a bad deal, a student may argue, as new research details the method by which the brain uses sleep to learn.
Investigators believe that during sleep the brain uses neural oscillations — brain waves — of particular frequencies to consolidate learning in specific brain regions.
As reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, Brown University scientists discovered that two specific frequencies of brain waves — fast-sigma and delta — are directly associated with learning a finger-tapping task similar to typing or playing the piano.
A recent study discovers a similar pattern on a visual task in which 15 volunteers were trained to spot a hidden texture amid an obscuring pattern of lines.
It’s a bit like an abstracted game of “Where’s Waldo” but such training is not merely an academic exercise, said Takeo Watanabe, Ph.D., professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown.
“Perceptual learning in general has been found to improve the visual ability of patients who have some decline of function due to aging,” Watanabe said.
In this case the researchers devised an experiment to see how sleep may help such training take hold.
They measured the brainwaves of the participants during sleep before and the training, and they measured the volunteers’ performance on the task before and after.
Investigators saw significant increases in sigma brainwave power after sleep compared to before in the visual cortical area in the occipital lobe of the volunteers’ brains.
To ensure they were measuring activity related to learning the task, the researchers purposely put the stimulus of the discrimination task in a particular quadrant of the subjects’ field of view.
That position corresponds to an anatomically distinct part of the visual cortical area. The team saw that the measured gain in sigma wave power was greater specifically in that trained part of the visual cortical area rather than in the untrained parts.
They also saw that the difference of power increase between trained and untrained regions of the visual cortical area was correlated with each individual’s performance improvement on the task.
Researchers used novel technology in the study including magnetic and electronic encephalography, magnetic resonance imaging and polysomnography to measure the brainwaves in specific brain regions during distinct phases of sleep.
The repeated significance of sigma oscillations, known as sleep spindles, in both the visual task and the motor task may be important in figuring out a broader picture of how the brain consolidates learning during sleep, the researchers said.
They did not, however, see the same uptick of delta frequency power that they saw in their study of the motor task.
Neuroscientists believe the two frequency bands play different roles. The sigma frequency is associated with internal workings of a brain region, while delta is associated more with inter-region communication.
“So far we are thinking that the sigma band is used commonly during learning-related jobs, but not necessarily the delta bands,” said Yuka Sasaki, Ph.D., associate professor (research) of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences.
Source: Brown University