Reactivating memories while sleeping improves motor skills

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Sleep Health | Sleep Review

Practice makes perfect, but sleep helps too. Learning and performing a new motor skill can be improved if you’re given additional memory processing while you sleep, according to a new study published in JNeurosci.

Northwestern University researchers compared how well participants did a challenging motor task with and without additional processing while sleeping. Participants played a computer game with a myoelectric computer interface that enabled them to move a cursor by activating specific arm muscles. Every command to move the cursor in a certain direction has been paired with a unique sound; After practicing, participants played the game blindfolded and moved the cursor based on the audio cue alone.

After a round of testing, participants took a 90-minute nap. The researchers played half of the audio signals during the nap and reactivated the motor memories associated with each cue. After the nap, the participants performed the movements displayed during sleep better than the unadjusted ones: moving the cursor took less time, the cursor moved more directly, and fewer unnecessary muscles were activated. These results show that we can improve the performance of new motor skills by reactivating memories while we sleep. This approach could be a way to improve rehabilitation after stroke or other neurological diseases.

Picture above: This photo shows the 4 EMG electrodes that were attached to each arm. Participants in the experiment learned to control a cursor by activating various arm muscles. Photo credit: Cheng et al., JNeurosci 2021



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