During waking hours, brain cells, or neurons, communicate via high-speed electrical signals that travel the length of the cell. These communications are the foundation for learning. As learning progresses, these signals travel across groups of neurons with increasing rapidity, forming circuits that work together to recall a memory. Previous research showed that, during sleep, these impulses were reversed, arising from waves of electrical activity originating deep within the brain.
In a study done with rats, researchers supported by the Child Development and Behavior Branch found that these reverse signals weakened circuits formed during waking hours, apparently so that unimportant information could be erased from the brain. But the reverse signals also appeared to prime the brain to relearn at least some of the forgotten information. If the animals encountered the same information upon awakening, the circuits re-formed much more rapidly than when they originally encountered the information.
The finding has implications not only for studies seeking to help people learn more efficiently, but also for attempts to understand and treat post-traumatic stress disorder―in which the mind has difficulty moving beyond a disturbing experience (PMID: 23479613).
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