search feedback link archive home

Parathyroid hormone may help battle osteoporosis

Doctors control spread of antibiotic-resistant bug

Healthier cattle feed benefits animals and people

Younger than 55? Alcohol risks outweigh benefits

Women have poorer body image than men

Finding disease genes may not be so difficult

Drug users need regular medical, drug abuse care

Study links child's depression with later obesity

RAND: US faces healthcare 'quality deficit'

Exercise keeps women's minds in shape



Ounce of Prevention: Cancer: Heredity, Not Destiny

Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity: What's the Connection?

Food & Fitness: Controlling Cravings

State of Mind: Teen Angst at Twenty-Five?

Not So Salty! A high-salt diet can be hazardous to your health


March 29, 2000
Sleep Your Way to Success
By Craig Bida

illustration: Jason Stout

If you feel as if your memory is slipping away, try sleeping some more. New research recently published in the journal Learning & Memory shows that catching enough ZZZs can dramatically impact your long-term memory and your ability to process new information and skills. As Claudio Mello, assistant professor at Rockefeller University and one of the study's authors, puts it, "Sleep and dreaming are very important for memory; if someone is learning something new, he or she should go to sleep."

sidebar: smart sleep habits

This may sound like common sense and, well, it is. (Who hasn't heard of the importance of getting a good night's sleep before an important day or a big exam?) Scientists have long known that sleep plays a critical role in memory formation, especially during the rapid eye movement, or REM, intervals. According to Mello, "This implies that sleeping and dreaming are critical parts of learning."

Until now, however, it has not been known exactly how sleep supports memory. To understand this mechanism, Mello and other researchers focused on a particular gene, zif-268, that is activated during learning. They exposed rats to new environments rich in sensory and motor stimuli (including mazes, toys, and five different flavors of corn flakes) and recorded subsequent levels of gene expression, or activation. They found that zif-268 became reactivated during subsequent REM sleep, revealing that the same processes and parts of the brain that are engaged during learning are reengaged during REM sleep. According to Mello, this helps the brain process information and creates the complex neural pathways that constitute memory. Because zif-268 is present in people as well as in rats, and the impact of sleep deprivation on our memory capacity is well known, Mello and his fellow researchers are confident that the same processes also occur in humans. sidebar: sleep trends

For night owls and insomniacs, the implications of this research are alarming. Without adequate REM sleep, nocturnal processing of information and construction of long-term memory could be compromised. Because REM sleep episodes happen throughout the night, with the greatest frequency occurring in the early morning, not getting enough sleep means foregoing vital REM memory activity. According to Constantine Pavlides, another Rockefeller University scientist, "If there is disruption around sleep, the memory trace can be lost. We need to sleep long enough so that a number of REM episodes can take place."

Now that this critical gene mechanism has been identified, scientists are exploring how to artificially activate this gene and others, which would open up new horizons for enhancing or even manipulating human memory.

For now, though, one thing is clear: The most important thing you can do to get ahead might not be to burn those midnight candles, but instead to simply sleep more. According to Pavlides, "Most people are cutting back on sleep, but it is a very important process and a very important part of our whole makeup. It is something we cannot skimp on."