Poor Sleep Affects the Ability to Learn
Everyone feels better after a good night’s sleep—well rested and ready to face the challenges of the day ahead. Conversely, a poor night’s sleep can leave us dragging the next day—with a negative effect on our performance. A new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, identifies an area of the brain involved in learning and demonstrates how the learning process may be affected by poor sleep.
The researchers examined the ability of the brain's motor cortex to change and adapt in response to stimuli from the environment and how deep sleep affects that ability. For the study, six women and seven men performed a number of physical tasks—first after a night of undisturbed sleep and then after a night in which researchers manipulated their sleep quality. Next, researchers evaluated participants’ ability to learn new movements.
Learning performance was highest in the morning, and study participants made more mistakes as the day progressed—a pattern expected by researchers. However, after a night of restorative sleep, learning performance improved again later in the day. According to the researchers, participants’ learning performance in the morning following a poor night’s sleep was as low as it had been in the evening following a good night’s sleep. Without enough deep sleep, the brain’s neuron synapses do not “rest” properly, interfering with our ability to learn.