Psychology Magazine

Consolidating Motor Skills in Our Sleep.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

It is well known that sleep, in ourselves and in other animals, helps in consolidating learned motor tasks. (When I am learning difficult passage in a new piano piece I'm preparing for performance, during initial stages of waking I observe my mind playing through the notes.) Ramanathan et al. examine the neurophysiological basis for this by recording from single motor cells in the rat brain to examine the replay of synchronous neural activity during sleep that mediates large-scale neural plasticity and stabilizes kinematics during early motor learning:

Sleep has been shown to help in consolidating learned motor tasks. In other words, sleep can induce "offline" gains in a new motor skill even in the absence of further training. However, how sleep induces this change has not been clearly identified. One hypothesis is that consolidation of memories during sleep occurs by "reactivation" of neurons engaged during learning. In this study, we tested this hypothesis by recording populations of neurons in the motor cortex of rats while they learned a new motor skill and during sleep both before and after the training session. We found that subsets of task-relevant neurons formed highly synchronized ensembles during learning. Interestingly, these same neural ensembles were reactivated during subsequent sleep blocks, and the degree of reactivation was correlated with several metrics of motor memory consolidation. Specifically, after sleep, the speed at which animals performed the task while maintaining accuracy was increased, and the activity of the neuronal assembles were more tightly bound to motor action. Further analyses showed that reactivation events occurred episodically and in conjunction with spindle-oscillations-common bursts of brain activity seen during sleep. This observation is consistent with previous findings in humans that spindle-oscillations correlate with consolidation of learned tasks. Our study thus provides insight into the neuronal network mechanism supporting consolidation of motor memory during sleep and may lead to novel interventions that can enhance skill learning in both healthy and injured nervous systems.

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