Getting quality sleep is necessary for the mind and memory. Obtaining the necessary amount of good sleep that we need sharpens the brain's ability to focus, increases our attention span, and prepares the brain for learning and retaining new things.
Deep, slow wave sleep, as well as REM sleep, also plays a major role in how we consolidate our memories. In other words, sleep plays a critical role in whether the information we process is moved into the long-term or short-term memory storage areas in our brains.
With this already known, researchers wanted to find out if sleep medications impact the processing of our memory. Their findings suggest that some commonly prescribed sleep medications may interfere with the memory enhancing benefits that we obtain from sleep.
The study included 22 adult participants who had no sleep problems. Two different sleep medications, or sleep hypnotics, were used for the study: zaleplon and zolpidem. Zaleplon is the ingredient in the medication Sonata. Zolpidem is the ingredient in Elduar, Ambien, and Ambien CR.
During the course of the study, all participants underwent three 8-hour sleep sessions. One session involved a bedtime dose of 12.5 mg of zolpidem. One session involved a 10 mg dose of zaleplon that was given in the middle of the night. The third session involved the administration of a placebo.
The participants’ memory skills were tested in two different ways before and after each sleep session. One test involved word-pair association tests. This type of test measures the declarative memory in the brain – the type of memory that is used to store thoughts, ideas, facts and events.
The second test involved a finger tapping test that measured procedural memory. This type of memory is most often used and recalled for tasks and skills that we don’t generally think about consciously such as how to type, brush our teeth, tie our shoes, etc.
The study revealed that changes occurred in both types of memory after taking the nighttime dose of medication. An interesting finding is that there was no difference in the memory tests of the participants when they took the middle of the night dose of medication and the placebo dosage. ** The findings of this study indicate that sleep hypnotics do interfere with the brain’s ability to consolidate memories during sleep. It also suggests that the timing of the dosage may be a significant factor; if the medication is taken later in the night it may not have a negative impact on memory.**
These findings are a first step in exploring sleep related brain functions when taking prescription sleep medications. They also will no doubt prompt researchers to seek out answers to other questions such as, "Does the dosage level impact memory?" And whether taking the medication later in the night will mean that any side-effects will linger later into the following day.
Until more research is done and more is known, you should follow your doctor’s prescribing and dosage advice. The use of sleep hypnotics on a short-term basis, under the guidance of a physician, can help you get your sleep cycle back on track. However, the long-term goal that you and your physician should have is to uncover the root cause of your insomnia and manage it without prescription sleep aids. Your health and your memory will benefit from that the most.
Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free sleep training for insomnia. His course helps insomnia sufferers improve their sleep without sleeping pills. Over 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.
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Hall-Porter JM; Schweitzer PK; Eisenstein RD; Ahmed HAH; Walsh JK. "The effect of two benzodiazepine receptor agonist hypnotics on sleep-dependent memory consolidation." J Clin Sleep Med 2014;10(1):27-34. Accessed July 1, 2015.