A new study provides evidence that sleep plays an important role in learning and memory.
A group of researchers from New York University's Langone Medical Center discovered that sleep and learning are closely connected. The study found that mice who slept after learning a task had increased growth of dendritic spines. Dendritic spines come out of brain cells and connect with other brain cells to play a role in passing information throughout the brain.
Of course, it's a complicated process.
Basically, "imagine a tree that grows leaves (spines) on one branch but not another branch. When we learn something new, it's like we're sprouting leaves on a specific branch," Wenbiao Gan, Ph.D., a study researcher and neuroscience and physiology professor said about the study.
The researchers conducted the study by having mice learn to balance on a spinning rod that constantly increased its speed, similar to riding a bike in that once you learn it, you don't forget. The mice were then split into two groups: one that slept for seven hours after learning the skill, and one that stayed awake for seven hours.
It was found that the mice that were allowed to sleep had more dendritic spine growth than the mice that did not sleep. Additionally, dendritic spines grew on different "branches" depending on how the mice ran - forward or backward on the rod.
"These findings indicate that sleep has a key role in promoting learning-dependent synapse formation and maintenance on selected dendritic branches, which contribute to memory storage," the researchers wrote as part of the study results.
Sleep plays an important role in sensory mechanisms as well. Another study, also conducted by researchers at NYU, found that rats' memory of smell is stronger during slow-wave sleep, as opposed to when it was exposed to the smell when awake. Similarly, researchers at Michigan State University did a study on humans that found that sleep is associated with improved working memory capacity, which may help with the processes of decision-making, problem solving and learning.
So despite how fun binge watching your favorite TV show can be...be sure to get those necessary hours of a sleep a night!