Presenting a rehearsed melody during slow-wave sleep enhances learning of the melody

It is increasingly recognized that learning of skills is facilitated by sleep. Intermittent sleep, even for briefer periods (napping), leads to increasing level of performance on a task that has been rehearsed prior to sleeping. Furthermore, the role of memory consolidation during sleep has been observed to depend on whether one sees task-related dreams; in studies where subjects have been awakened in the middle of sleep and requested to recall their dream contents, task-related dream content predicted higher post-sleep increments in task performance.

In their recent study, Antony et al. (2012) studied whether one could facilitate learning of skills by external stimulation related to task learning that does not wake up the skill-learner. Specifically, the authors hypothesized that the ability to produce a melody could be influenced by auditory cuing during sleep. Volunteers practiced two melodies for an equal amount of time. During an afternoon nap following the training session, one of the melodies was presented during slow-wave sleep detected with electroencephalography. Post-sleep testing revealed that performance of the melody that was played during slow-wave sleep was better than performance of the other melody (prior to the nap there were no differences in performance of the two melodies). Performance enhancements further correlated with the amount of time that the subjects were under slow-wave sleep.

These highly interesting results further contribute to a rapidly growing and exciting area of research in cognitive neuroscience on the importance of sleep for memory consolidation and learning of skills. These results further underline the importance of sleep for learning and suggest that it is possible to facilitate the beneficial effects of sleep on learning of musical sequences by external stimulation during a specific period of sleep, the slow wave sleep.

Reference: Antony JW, Gobel EW, O’Hare JK, Reber PJ, Paller KA. Cued memory reactivation during sleep influences skill learning. Nature Neuroscience (2012) 15: 1114-1116. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn.3152

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