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Published: June 8, 2024

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Memory

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Being a night owl seems harmless enough. It affords you time to hang out with friends, catch up on work emails, watch your favorite TV shows. But did you know that losing Zzz’s might actually damage your brain’s learning and memory functions? The American Sleep Association says that most adults function best on 7 to 8 hours of sleep. However, the majority are sleeping six hours or less per night. If you’re among those who aren’t getting enough rest, a new study says you could be impairing your long-term memory function.

According to University of Michigan researchers, sleep deprivation affects the rhythm in which neurons fire in the hippocampus region (where long-term memories are made) known as CA1.

“It seems like this population of neurons that is generating rhythms in the brain during sleep is providing some informational content for reinforcing memories,” says Sara Aton, an assistant professor in the department of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at University of Michigan, via Medical News Today. “The rhythm itself seems to be the most critical part, and possibly why you need to have sleep in order to form these memories.”

For the study, mice were given a foot shock and then separated into two groups. One group was given a drug that mimics the process that occurs during sleep deprivation. When both groups were returned to the environment with the foot shock, the group that received the drug did not appear to remember the earlier foot shock incident.

“If you return the mouse to that same structure a day or even a couple [of] months later, they will have this very stereotyped fear response, which is that they freeze,” explains Aton. “But if you sleep-deprive an animal for a few hours after that context-shock pairing, the mouse won’t remember it the next day,” she adds.

The study authors say this research underscores the importance of sleep for learning and memory formation.

Additional research published last year from Universities of Groningen (Netherlands) and Pennsylvania found that five hours of sleep deprivation can create a disconnect between neurons and the hippocampus. This study also noted that sleep deprivation affected the neurons in the CA1 region of the hippocampus in mice, reports Science Daily. But interestingly, when the mice were given a chance to sleep undisturbed for three hours after the repeated experiment, the effects of sleep deprivation were reversed. 

Of course it’s always best to get the recommended 7-plus hours of sleep, but if situations don’t allow for it (e.g., you have a newborn), try to carve out time for a nap to restore some of your brain function. And be sure to check out our tips here for getting a good night’s rest.

How many hours of sleep do you usually get per night? Tell us below. 


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