But sleep deprivation impairs spatial learning -- including remembering how to get to a new destination. And now scientists are beginning to understand how that happens: Learning spatial tasks increases the production of new cells in an area of the brain involved with spatial memory called the hippocampus. Sleep plays a part in helping those new brain cells survive.
A team of researchers from the University of California and Stanford University found that sleep-restricted rats had a harder time remembering a path through a maze compared to their rested counterparts. And unlike the rats that got enough sleep, the sleep-restricted rats showed reduced survival rate of new hippocampus cells.
The researchers used sleep-restricted rats rather than sleep-deprived rats to more closely mimic the common human experience of inadequate sleep during the work week, said lead investigator Ilana Hairston of both the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. The paper, "Sleep restriction suppresses neurogenesis induced by hippocampus-dependent learning," appears in the Journal of Neurophysiology published by the American Physiological Society. Stanford researchers Milton T.M. Little, Michael D. Scanlon, Monique T. Barakat, Theo D. Palmer, Robert M. Sapolsky, and H. Craig Heller co-authored the paper.
Learning appears to rejuvenate the brain
Scientists already know and most of us can confirm from firsthand experience -- that lack of sleep impairs cognitive function. Sleep-restricted individuals have a shorter attention span, impaired memory, and a longer reaction time. "Sleep is necessary for general health, but it now appears that the brain needs sleep more than any other part of the body," Hairston said.