Sleep both protects and strengthens memories, according to a new study.
The study looked at memory recall with and without interference (competing information intended to confuse the memory). Forty-eight people between the ages of 18 and 30 took part in the study. All had normal, healthy sleep routines. Participants were divided evenly into four groups-a wake group without interference, a wake group with interference, a sleep group without interference and a sleep group with interference. All groups were taught the same 20 pairs of words in the initial training session.
The wake groups were taught the word pairings at 9 a.m. and then tested on them at 9 p.m. after 12 hours awake. The sleep groups were taught the word pairs at 9 p.m. and tested on them at 9 a.m. after a night of sleep. Just prior to testing, the interference groups were given a second list of word pairs to remember. The first word in each pair was the same on both lists, but the second word was different, testing the brain's ability to handle competing information, known as interference. The interference groups were then tested on both lists.
The study found that people who slept after learning the information performed best, successfully recalling more words. Those in the sleep group without interference were able to recall 12 percent more word pairings from the first list than the wake group without interference. With interference, the recall rate was 44 percent higher for the sleep group.
"This is the first study to show that sleep protects memories from interference," said study author Jeffrey Ellenbogen, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School. "These results provide important insights into how the sleeping brain interacts with memories: it appears to strengthen them. Perhaps, then, sleep disorders might worsen memory problems seen in dementia."
These findings will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 59th Annual Meeting in Boston, April 28 - May 5, 2007.