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Take a nap to learn new information

Napping is best to learn new information Sleep helps reinforce memory, research finds

The best way to retain newly learned information is to take a nap, according to the latest research.

Experiments showed that the brain is better at resisting attempts at removing a recent memory during sleep, as opposed to when a person is awake.

Earlier research had shown that new memories stored in the hippocampus are fragile, and apt to be lost to new information when the person is awake.

Researchers had assumed that this would also be the case when a person was asleep, but were surprised to discover that in fact the brain was better at retaining newly learned information.

Twenty-four volunteers were asked to memorise 15 pairs of cards while being exposed to an unpleasant smell.

A short while later, half of the subjects who stayed awake were asked to learn a slightly different card pattern while being exposed to the same smell.

The other twelve subjects performed the second exercise after a brief nap, but were also exposed to the same smell.

Both groups were then tested on the original card pattern, with the second group performing significantly better than the first - retaining 85 per cent of the pattern against 60 per cent of those who stayed awake.

The researchers assume that the reason the brain is better at retaining new information during sleep is that in the first few minutes of sleep, the information is passed from the hippocampus, where it is initially stored, to the neocortex, the site of longer term memory.

In fact, after a 40 minute nap, most of the new information was stored in the neocortex, where it could no longer be overwritten by new information stored in the hippocampus.

The researchers, from the University of Lubeck in Germany, where the experiments were conducted, said the discovery could pave the way for new approaches to learning memory intensive information, such as languages.

This article was published on Mon 24 January 2011

Image © godfer - Fotolia.com

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