Public Release: 

Want to remember new names? Sleep on it

Brigham and Women's Hospital study highlights importance of post-learning sleep

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Boston, MA-- A new study by investigators at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) offers an additional reason to get a good night's sleep. In a closely controlled study of fourteen participants, researchers found that they were significantly better at remembering faces and names if they were given an opportunity to sleep for up to eight hours after seeing those faces and names for the first time. The team's findings appear in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory this week.

"We know that many different kinds of memories are improved with sleep. While a couple of studies have looked at how naps might affect our ability to learn new faces and names, no previous studies have looked at the impact of a full night of sleep in between learning and being tested," said Jeanne F. Duffy, PhD, MBA, corresponding author on this study and associate neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at BWH. "We found that when participants were given the opportunity to have a full night's sleep, their ability to correctly identify the name associated with a face - and their confidence in their answers - significantly improved."

Participants in the study underwent testing in a controlled environment while staying at BWH's Center for Clinical Investigation. They were shown 20 photos of faces with corresponding names from a database of over 600 color photographs of adult faces, and asked to memorize them. After a twelve-hour period, they were then shown the photos again with either a correct or incorrect name. In addition to answering whether or not the correct name was shown, participants were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of one to nine.

Each participant completed the test twice - once with an interval of sleep in between and once with a period of regular, waking day activities in between. When given an opportunity to sleep for up to eight hours, participants correctly matched 12 percent more of the faces and names.

The researchers did not find that sleep duration or sleep stage influenced people's ability to correctly recognize faces and names - more extensive, larger studies will be needed to determine if these factors make an important difference.

The new findings suggest that sleep after new learning activities may help improve memory. While the current study was conducted on healthy subjects in their 20s, the research team would like to explore the implications for people of all ages, including older adults.

"Sleep is important for learning new information. As people get older, they are more likely to develop sleep disruptions and sleep disorders, which may in turn cause memory issues," said Duffy. "By addressing issues with sleep, we may be able to affect people's ability to learn things at all different ages."

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Support for this study was provided by the National Institutes of Health (grants P01 AG09975, R01 AG044416, and R01 HL094654), and The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center (National Center for Research Resources and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health Award UL1 TR0001102 and financial contributions from Harvard University and its affiliated academic health care centers). Students and trainees who worked on the study were supported by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, The Gyllenberg Foundation, the Finnish Work Environment Fund, and the Department of Psychology at the University of Konstanz (Germany).

Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) is a 793-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare. BWH has more than 4.2 million annual patient visits, nearly 46,000 inpatient stays and employs nearly 16,000 people. The Brigham's medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in patient care, quality improvement and patient safety initiatives, and its dedication to research, innovation, community engagement and educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Brigham Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, more than 1,000 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by nearly $600 million in funding. For the last 25 years, BWH ranked second in research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) among independent hospitals. BWH continually pushes the boundaries of medicine, including building on its legacy in transplantation by performing a partial face transplant in 2009 and the nation's first full face transplant in 2011. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses' and Physicians' Health Studies and the Women's Health Initiative as well as the TIMI Study Group, one of the premier cardiovascular clinical trials groups. For more information, resources and to follow us on social media, please visit BWH's online newsroom.

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