MADISON (WKOW) – Two University of Wisconsin, Madison scientists have put forward a new hypothesis on why we sleep. During sleep, they say, the brain weakens -- not strengthens -- the connections among brain cells to allow the brain to reset, and strangely enough, the result is better memory.
"Sleep consolidates memories," UW-Madison professor of psychiatry Chiara Cirelli said. "'Consolidate' means that memories are brighter, more resistant to interference and forgetting."
Cirelli is the coauthor of the new sleep study that finds that sleep is the price the brain pays for learning and memory. Tiredness is a signal of the brain maxing out and rest or disconnection is necessary to maintain balance, according to Cirelli.
Cirelli and her co-author and fellow professor Giulio Tononi used genetically-engineered fruit flies whose brains would glow fluorescent to study the way the brain functions during wake and sleep. Cirelli says the fly brains are comparable to mammals and humans when studying sleep at the cellular level.
When the flies were asleep, scientists say their brain cells weakened or disconnected to "clean the brain," as Cirelli described, and reduce the noise and only retain what is essential.
More, the more we learn, the better we sleep, according to Cirelli.
"When we are awake we're always learning new things. That means the connections of the neurons in our brains get strengthened, which is very good – that's how we learn. But it comes at a very high price," Cirelli said.
The price, as mentioned previously, is sleep. The more you learn, the deeper you'll sleep, according to the study authors. Though, this doesn't mean you need to enroll in a class to get a better night's rest, they say, but having new stimuli or being in a new environment will tire you out, and allow you to sleep deeper.
Cirelli says the breakthrough in further understanding sleep on a cellular level means there could be better methods and better drugs that mimic real sleep in the future.
However, "there is still a lot we don't know about sleep," Cirelli said, emphasizing that the hypothesis still needs further testing, and laughed, "it's very embarrassing as sleep scientists."
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