A study of healthy volunteers, National Institutes of Health researchers recorded the brain activity that happens when we acquire a new knowledge such as performing a new song on the piano. During the rest, the researchers observed that the brains of the participants performed quicker and repeated versions of the activity they saw when writing code. The better a volunteer completed the task during future workouts, showing rest enhanced memory.
“Our findings support the assumption that wakeful rest is equally crucial for acquiring a new skill as practice. It seems to be the era in which our brains solidify the memory of what we have performed,” stated Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., NIH’s Senior Investigator and NINDS Senior Author of the research published in Cell Reports. “Underlying this function of neural replay may help influence not only how we acquire new abilities, but how we assist patients regain abilities that have been lost after neurological damage like stroke.”
The investigation was carried out at the NIH Clinical Center. Dr. Cohen’s team employed a very sensitive magnetoencephalography scan technology to capture 33 healthy right-handed participants’ brainwaves by learning to write the five-digit test code with their left hands. The individuals sat on a chair and beneath the long cone shaped cap of the scanner. An experiment was begun when a participant saw the code “41234” on the screen and requested to write it out for 10 seconds as many times as possible and then take a break of 10 seconds. Sujets were requested to repeat a total of 35 times this cycle of alternating practice and relaxation.
During the first few tests, the speed of proper code typing improved considerably and then increased at cycle 11. In an earlier research, conducted by Marlene Bönstrup, a former NIH postdoctoral researcher, M.D., Dr Cohen’s team revealed that the majority of these increases occurred during brief breaks and not when the individuals were typing. The benefits were also higher than following night sleep and were connected with a reduction in the magnitude of brain waves known as beta rhythms. In this latest analysis, the researchers looked for something else in the brain waves of the patients.
“We aimed to examine the processes of wakeful rest for improving memory. Various memory types seem to be based on the replay of brain activities. We thus sought to test this notion for acquiring procedural skills,” stated Ethan R. Buch, Ph.D., a team research scientist and leader of Dr. Cohen’s study.
To achieve this, the former postdoctoral student in Dr. Cohen’s laboratory, Leonardo Claudino, Ph.D., helped Dr. Buch design a computer software that enabled the team to understand the brain wave activity that would be linked to inputting each number into the test code.
The computer showed them that a significantly quicker version of the brain activity witnessed while typing – roughly 20 times quicker – was reproduced throughout the other periods. During the first eleven practical tests, these compressed versions of the activity were repeated many times – roughly 25 times – during the rest interval. This was two to three times as frequent as during later periods of rest or after the studies had completed.
Interestingly, the frequency of playback during rest was forecast to increase memory. In other words, the people whose brains replaced the typing action exhibited higher performance jumps after each test than those who repeated it fewer frequently.
“We discovered that a restful wakeful playback was compressed in duration, often and an excellent predictor of the variability in acquiring a new skill among people throughout the early section of the learning curve,” Dr. Buch remarked. “This shows that the brain links memories needed to master a new skill during a waking period.”
The team has observed, as predicted, that playback commonly occurs in the sensorimotor parts of the brain that govern movement. In other brain areas, they also detected activity, especially the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex.
“These recent results startled us a little. Historically, hippocampus and entorhinal cortex may not have such a significant part in the procedural memory. In contrast, our data show that the sensorimotor cortex chats with these areas quickly while acquiring certain skill types,” Dr. Cohen stated. “Overall, our findings support the concept that modifying replays during waking rest might be a valuable tool that researchers may utilize to assist people acquire new abilities more quickly and perhaps help them rehabilitate themselves.”
The NIH Intramural Research Program of the NINDS sponsored this work.
NINDS is the nation’s major sponsor of brain and nervous system research. NINDS has the objective to acquire basic information and apply this information to lessen the impact of neurological diseases on the brain and nervous system.
About the National Health Institutes (NIH): NIH, the national health research organization, has 27 institutes and centers and is an integral element of the U.S. Department of Human Services and Health. NIH is the major government organization for fundamental, clinical and translational medical research that carries out and supports and investigates both common and uncommon illnesses causes, treatments, and cures. Visit www.nih.gov for more information about NIH and its activities.