Can we modify specific stages of sleep to improve our memory?

Sleeping Kitten

Our memory is far from perfect. You have probably gone into another room and completely forgot what you went in there for. You stare into space and hope it will come back to you. Was it to pick up keys, tidy something or speak to someone? Nope, it just doesn’t come and you walk back slightly dazed and annoyed at your ailing memory. This is just a small example of the times our memory fail us during our day-to-day lives. However, what if we could improve our memory while we sleep?

Sleep is important. I’d like to think that I’ve impressed on you all by now. It protects us from certain metabolic disorders, keeps us alert to our surroundings and maintains our mental health and overall mood. There is some evidence to suggest it helps the brain’s natural waste disposal systems but that’s still in its very early days (despite some bold claims in the mainstream media). All of these areas have garnered substantial interest from scientists but memory is the one we’ll be focusing on. Typically, studies show that our ability to lay down new memories improves after a simple nap or a good night’s sleep. This, of course, isn’t always practical but it provides us some insight into what is happening in the brain when we drift off. It also should remind anyone revising for exams that sacrificing sleep is a false economy – unless of course you need to cram. Sleep can only help you so far there.

The link between sleep and memory raises an interesting question: what is it about this period of seeming inactivity that may help improve our memory? Sleep is far from a unitary construct and if we could identify the specific stage or stages which are crucial for memory then perhaps we could capitalise on this. We go through different stages of sleep, broadly, broken down into Non-REM and REM, and these are made up of different brain cell oscillations (see picture below) within the brain. Through probing the different stages, we can start to understand which are more important for memory. So, what are some of the candidates for sleep’s role in memory? The main contenders are sleep spindles and slow wave sleep (although REM has also been claimed to play a role in memory too).


Stages of sleep recorded from EEG

Sleep spindles are characteristic of sleep stage 2 and are brief bursts of activity seen when using a brain imaging device known as electroencephalography (EEG). Imagine one of the funny caps with electrodes protruding out as you probably have a good idea of the typically EEG setup. Sleep spindles have been claimed to be important for memory consolidation and form a key part of one of the main hypotheses for how sleep might boost our memory. More specifically, it is argued that sleep spindles may facilitate the movement of memories from temporary consolidation in a part of the brain known as the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. Interestingly, sleep spindle activity correlates with performance on memory recall following sleep, and spindles show an increase following learning. The activity location of the spindles seems to be associated with the location of brain activity engaged during intensive learning of a specific function. As a result, some have suggested that sleep spindle activity may be used as a marker for learning potential (Fogel & Smith, 2011). However, the reality is likely more complex than this. Nonetheless, it does point towards spindles as a potential marker of memory consolidation during sleep.

In addition, slow wave activity (SWA) has also been shown to be important for memory. These are the slow (1Hz) oscillations characteristic of deep sleep. It has been this stage of sleep which has primarily been targeted to improve memory in previous studies. More recently, slow wave activity and sleep spindles have been successfully modified through the use of electrical stimulation of the scalp, drugs, playing sounds throughout the night (specifically timed and not so loud as to wake the participants), and even by presenting odours present at the time words were initially memorised.  These manipulations have been shown to improve memory and it seems it does this by increasing the amount of slow wave activity and sleep spindles. This work, although still in its infancy, suggests that it possible to stimulate specific features of sleep and, in turn, improve a vital cognitive function. It is at this point that a recent study in the aptly titled journal ‘Sleep’ comes in.

A group at the University of Helsinki in March this year ( built on these previous findings by trying to identify a way to automate this process of stimulating slow wave activity. The success of this aim would increase the ease of introducing this technique into a home-setting and allow for the modification of sleep coveniently. The group decided to try to find a way to target sound stimuli to slow waves automatically in the hope of improving specific types of memory without affecting the sleep quality or mood of the participant. This is crucial as it is little use improving memory and modifying sleep if it causes other problems at the same time.

How did the researchers attempt to automate this process? They recorded electrical activity from the brain during sleep and were able to identify slow wave activity automatically by looking out for a specific frequency band (i.e. how often a waveform occurs over a set period of time). Whenever slow wave activity, indicative of deep sleep, was identified in the sleeping participant, a computer program sent a message to another device which played a brief sound. This meant that the sound was played just after a period of slow wave activity. Following this, there was a break of least 2 seconds between each sound being played. The loudness of the noise was changed automatically in response to cues from the participant. For example, if it seemed that the participant was waking up then the sound was lowered.

With the system in place, a total of 15 participants were invited into the lab for three days, each day separated by a week, to test out the automated approach to increase slow wave activity. The first day involved a familiarisation night so that the participants could get used to sleeping in the lab and with the equipment setup. During day two, one half of the participants heard the automated sounds and the other half did not. This was then switched for the third and final day. This allowed the researchers to compare performance on memory tasks when the sounds were not played and when they were not.

So, what did they find? Firstly, and importantly, they showed that their automated enhancement of slow wave activity was successful and viable. It managed to increase slow wave activity and sleep spindles. Moreover, the automated sounds were also found to increase memory overnight. They showed that word-pairs could be enhanced by playing a relatively quiet sound during slow wave activity. The interesting outcome of this study is that the possibility of having an automated system which people could use at home to boost memory. For populations who have poor memory this could hold promise as a therapeutic tool. It is a while off anything like this being available but it tells us something about how sleep contributes to memory and the potential ways we can exploit this in the future.

Although it is still unclear how exactly sleep is linked to memory, it is research like this which is starting to uncover that our brains are anything but quiet during sleep. Although there is likely to be no device which will improve your memory overnight on the market any time soon, scientists are working on the concepts necessary for this to become a reality. For now, perhaps you could try writing down what you’re about to do before walking into a new room? Leminen MM, Virkkala J, Saure E, Paajanen T, Zee PC, Santostasi G, Hublin C, Müller K, Porkka-Heiskanen T, Huotilainen M, & Paunio T (2017). Enhanced Memory Consolidation Via Automatic Sound Stimulation During Non-REM Sleep. Sleep, 40 (3) PMID: 28364428

Additional References

Fogel, S. M., & Smith, C. T. (2011). The function of the sleep spindle: a physiological index of intelligence and a mechanism for sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(5), 1154-1165.

Image Credits

Sleeping Cat (Header)

Sleep Stages (Body Text)


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Filed under General Interest, Memory, Psychology, Sleep Science

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