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New Sleep Method Shows Smell Strengthens Memories

A new study has yielded an innovative method for bolstering memory processes in the brain during sleep.

Developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the method relies on a memory-evoking scent administered to one nostril.

Researchers say the method helps researchers understand how sleep aids memory, and in the future could possibly help to restore memory capabilities following brain injuries or help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for whom memory often serves as a trigger.

“We know that a memory consolidation process takes place in the brain during sleep,” said Ella Bar, a PhD student at TAU and the Weizmann Institute of Science who led the study. “For long-term memory storage, information gradually transitions from the hippocampus — a brain region that serves as a temporary buffer for new memories — to the neocortex. But how this transition happens remains an unsolved mystery.”

“By triggering consolidation processes in only one side of the brain during sleep, we were able to compare the activity between the hemispheres and isolate the specific activity that corresponds to memory reactivation,” added Professor Yuval Nir of TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience, a principal investigator on the study.

“Beyond promoting basic scientific understanding, we hope that in the future this method may also have clinical applications,” Bar said. “For instance, post-traumatic patients show higher activity in the right hemisphere when recalling a trauma, possibly related to its emotional content. The technique we developed could potentially influence this aspect of the memory during sleep and decrease the emotional stress that accompanies recall of the traumatic memory. Additionally, this method could be further developed to assist in rehabilitation therapy after one-sided brain damage due to stroke.”

The researchers explain the study began from the knowledge that memories associated with locations on the left side of a person are mostly stored in the right brain hemisphere and vice versa.

While exposed to the scent of a rose, research participants were asked to remember the location of words presented on either the left or right side of a computer screen. Participants were then tested on their memory of the word locations, then proceeded to nap at the lab. As the participants were napping, the scent of roses was administered again, but this time to only one nostril, the researchers reported.

With this “one-sided” odor delivery, the researchers were able to reactivate and boost specific memories that were stored in a specific brain hemisphere, they explained.

The researchers also recorded electrical brain activity during sleep with EEG.

The results showed that the “one-sided” rose scent delivery led to different sleep waves in the two hemispheres. The hemisphere that received the scent revealed better electrical signatures of memory consolidation during sleep, according to the study’s findings.

Finally, in the most crucial test of all according to the researchers, subjects were asked after waking up to undergo a second memory test about the words they had been exposed to before falling asleep.

“The memory of the subjects was significantly better for words presented on the side affected by smell than the memory for words presented on the other side,” Bar said.

“Our findings emphasize that the memory consolidation process can be amplified by external cues such as scents,” she continued. “By using the special organization of the olfactory pathways, memories can be manipulated in a local manner on one side of the brain. Our finding demonstrates that memory consolidation likely involves a nocturnal ‘dialogue’ between the hippocampus and specific regions in the cerebral cortex.”

The study was published in Current Biology.

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

New Sleep Method Shows Smell Strengthens Memories

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). New Sleep Method Shows Smell Strengthens Memories. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/03/13/new-sleep-method-shows-smell-strengthens-memories/154765.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 Mar 2020 (Originally: 13 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 13 Mar 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.