New sleep method may help improve memory function

In a new study, researchers have developed an innovative method for bolstering memory processes in the brain during sleep.

The method relies on a memory-evoking scent administered to one nostril.

It helps researchers understand how sleep aids memory, and in the future could possibly help to restore memory capabilities following brain injuries, or help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for whom memory often serves as a trigger.

The research was conducted by a team at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

It is known that a memory consolidation process takes place in the brain during sleep.

For long-term memory storage, information gradually transitions from the hippocampus—a brain region that serves as a temporary buffer for new memories—to the neocortex.

But how this transition happens remains an unsolved mystery.

In the study, the team triggered consolidation processes in only one side of the brain during sleep, and they were able to compare the activity between the hemispheres and isolate the specific activity that corresponds to memory reactivation.

The team says by using the special organization of the olfactory pathways, memories can be manipulated in a local manner on one side of the brain.

The finding demonstrates that memory consolidation likely involves a nocturnal ‘dialogue’ between the hippocampus and specific regions in the cerebral cortex.

The technique they developed could potentially influence this aspect of the memory during sleep and decrease the emotional stress that accompanies recall of the traumatic memory.

Additionally, this method could be further developed to assist in rehabilitation therapy after one-sided brain damage due to stroke.

It may also help post-traumatic patients who have higher activity in the right hemisphere when recalling a trauma, possibly related to its emotional content.

The lead author of the study is Ella Bar, a Ph.D. student at TAU and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The study is published in Current Biology.

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