Remembering faces and names can be improved during sleep

The three main phases of the Whitmore et al. (2022). First, participants learned 80 associations with face names. Next, they slept while the EEG was monitored to determine the stage of sleep, and 20 of the spoken names were presented softly over background music during slow-wave sleep. Finally, memory tests showed better memory due to memory reactivation during sleep, but only when sleep was undisturbed by sound presentations. Photo credit: Nathan Whitmore, a Ph.D. Candidate in Northwestern University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program.

For those who seldom forget a face but struggle with names, the means of promoting learning can be as close as your pillow.

New research from Northwestern University is the first to document the effect of memory reactivation during sleep on facial name learning.

The researchers found that people’s name memories improved significantly when memories of newly learned face name associations were reactivated while they were napping. The key to this improvement was uninterrupted deep sleep.

“This is a new and exciting finding about sleep because it tells us that the way information is reactivated during sleep to improve memory retention is linked to quality sleep,” said lead author Nathan Whitmore , a Ph.D. Candidate in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern.

The article “Targeted Memory Reactivation in Facial Name Learning Depends on Abundant and Undisturbed Slow-Wave Sleep” will be published January 12th in Nature’s partner magazine npj: science of learning.

The lead author of the article is Ken Paller, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in Northwestern. The paper was also written by Adrianna Bassard, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology from Northwestern.

The research team found that in subjects with EEG measurements (a record of electrical activity in the brain picked up by electrodes placed on the scalp) that indicate a sleep disorder, memory reactivation did not help and can even be harmful. But for those with uninterrupted sleep during the specific times of the sound presentations, reactivation resulted in a relative improvement averaging just over 1.5 more remembered names.

The study was conducted on 24 participants, ages 18 to 31, who were asked to memorize the faces and names of 40 students from a hypothetical Latin American history class and another 40 from a Japanese history class. When each face was shown again, they were asked to give their names. After the study exercise, participants took a nap while the researchers carefully monitored brain activity with EEG measurements. When the participants reached the N3 “deep sleep” state, some of the names were played softly through a speaker with music associated with one of the classes.

When participants woke up, they were retested to recognize the faces and remember the name that went with each face.

The researchers say the finding on the association between sleep disorders and memory accuracy is remarkable for several reasons.

“We already know that some sleep disorders, like apnea, can affect memory,” said Whitmore. “Our research suggests a possible explanation for this – frequent sleep interruptions at night could impair memory.”

The laboratory is in the middle of a follow-up study to reactivate memories and consciously disrupt sleep in order to learn more about the relevant brain mechanisms.

“This new line of research will have us answer a lot of interesting questions – such as whether sleep disorders are always harmful or whether they could be used to weaken unwanted memories,” said Paller, who also holds the James Padilla Chair in Arts & Sciences at Northwestern holds. “In any case, we are finding more and more good reasons to value high-quality sleep.”

Press (re) play to remind yourself: How the brain strengthens memories while you sleep

More information:
The targeted memory reactivation when learning the face name depends on sufficient and undisturbed slow-wave sleep, npj: science of learning, DOI: 10.1038 / s41539-021-00119-2

Provided by Northwestern University

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