Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss

A good night’s sleep makes you feel better, just as you pay the price for a poor night’s sleep. An adequate amount of quality sleep allows your body time to rest and recharge, and is  also be crucial to your brain’s health, its ability to learn and recall your memories.

Girl shrugs - I can't remember
If you are sleep deprived, your ability to learn and retain new information may also be impaired.

During sleep while your body rests, your brain processes information from the day and forms memories.

This may not be news to anyone who has pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test only to find the facts and figures they knew at 2 a.m. could not be recalled the next day, while with a good night’s sleep, facts learned the night before can be processed and remembered better! Without adequate sleep, your brain becomes foggy, your judgment impaired, and your fine motor skills hindered.

The power of sleep

Imaging and behavioural studies continue to show the critical role sleep plays in learning and memory. Researchers believe that sleep affects learning and memory in two ways:

Lack of sleep impairs a person’s ability to focus and learn efficiently.

Sleep is necessary to consolidate a memory (make it stick) so that it can be recalled in the future.

Making memories

There are different types of memories. Some are fact-based, such as remembering the name of state capitals. Some are episodic, based on events in your life, be they good or bad. Some memories are procedural or instructional, such as how to ride a bike or play the piano or develop other skills or knowledge.

For something to become a memory, three functions must occur, including:

Acquisition – learning or experiencing something new

Consolidation – the memory becomes stable in the brain

Recall – having the ability to access the memory in the future

Its when you review these factors that you begin to realise just how amazing the brain and its functions are and begin to see the pivotal role that an adequate amount of quality sleep takes in these processes.

old pictures and memories

Both acquisition and recall are functions that take place when you are awake. However, researchers believe sleep is required for consolidation of a memory, regardless of the memory type. Without adequate sleep, your brain has a harder time absorbing and recalling new information.

Sleep does more than help sharpen the mind. Studies show too, that sleep affects physical reflexes, fine motor skills, and judgment, also. Studies have shown that participants who were sleep deprived were more likely to think they were right – even when they were, in fact, wrong.

Studies involving memory tests show that after a single night of sleep, or even a nap, people perform better, whether on a test, in the office, on the athletic field, or in a concert hall. Memory in it’s entirety works better with adequate sleep. Even apparently deep sleep, when fragmented as in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) does not allow memory recall and “my memory’s not as good as it was” is often one of the presenting complaints of OSA..

It remains unknown exactly how sleep enhances memory, but it appears to involve both  the brain’s hippocampus and neocortex ( parts of the brain where long-term memories appear to be stored). It is thought that during sleep, the hippocampus replays the events of the day for the neocortex, where it reviews and processes memories, helping them to last for the long term.

Researchers continue to investigate the stages of sleep involved in making certain types of memories. Some studies have shown that certain kinds of memories become stable during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the time when you most and most vividly. Other studies have found that some types of memories are most often secured during slow-wave, 9level 3) deep sleep. Scientists are getting closer to understanding what sleep does to our brain, but there are still many questions to be answered.

What’s certain is that sleep is a biological necessity. We need it to survive. Unfortunately, in these modern times of 24-hour activity, few of us are able to get the sleep we need to function our best. Experts still recommend adults get around 8 of sleep each night. Although this may not be attainable every night, it should be our goal.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including getting regular and quality sleep, can be a challenge, especially when you are stressed with a work deadline or test. But, remember (and you need sleep to do this), sleep is your ally, so, when it comes to learning and memory, sleep on it!

A note in conclusion – after 20 years of providing Obstructive Sleep Apnea management, the diminished ability for short-term recall is often mentioned by sufferers. This may be part of the general loss of executive function sufferers of OSA experience. If you suffer from an increase in memory loss, screened and testing for OSA should be a first step.

Dr. Stephen Bray

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