Jul 19, 2019 | Updated: 09:53 AM EDT

Brains Use Short Rest Periods to Strength Memories

Apr 12, 2019 01:12 PM EDT

Brains Use Short Rest Periods to Strength Memories
(Photo : Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay)

The National Institutes of Health researchers, in a healthy volunteers' study, discovered that our brains might solidify the memories of new skills we just practiced a few seconds earlier by taking a short rest. It was highlighted in the results the crucially important role rest may play in learning.

A senior author of the paper published in the journal Current Biology and a senior investigator at NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Leonardo G. Cohen, MD., Ph.D., said that people have the impression that one needs to practice all the time when someone is learning something new. But he discovered that resting, early and often, can be just as essential to learning as practice. Cohen maintained further that their ultimate hope is that the results of their experiments will help patients recover from the paralyzing effects caused by strokes and other neurological injuries by informing the strategies they use to relearn lost skills.

Marlene Bonstrup, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cohen's lab led the study, and she held the belief, like many scientists, that our brains needed long periods of rest such as a good night's sleep to strengthen the memories formed whole practicing a newly learned skill. But she began to question the idea after she looked at brain waves recorded from healthy volunteers in learning and memory experiments at the NIH Clinical Center.

In the experiment, they recorded the waves from right-handed volunteers with a highly sensitive scanning technique they referred to as magnetoencephalography. Facing the screen of a computer, the subject sat under a long cone-shaped brain scanning cap. The experiment commenced when they showed the subject a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hands for 10 seconds. They gave them a 10-second break and then repeated this trial cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more times. They use this strategy to reduce any complications that could arise from fatigue or other factors.

From their expectation, the speed of the volunteers at which they correctly typed the numbers improved dramatically during the first few trails and then leveled off around the eleventh cycle. Something exciting came up when Dr. Bonstrup checked the brain waves of the volunteers.

She stated that she noticed that the brains of the participants appeared to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions. Ultimately, the result gave her the idea to look much more closely for when learning was happening. Did it happen during the practice or rest?

She concluded that their results suggest that it may be essential to optimize the timing and configuration of rest intervals when implementing rehabilitative treatments in stroke patients or when learning to play the piano in regular volunteers.

In greater detail, Cohen and the team have the plan to explore the role of these early testing periods in learning and memory.

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