How Sleep Helps Brain Learn Motor Task

August 21, 2013

Sleep helps the brain consolidate what we've learned, but scientists have struggled to determine what goes on in the brain to make that happen for different kinds of learned tasks. In a new study, researchers pinpoint the brainwave frequencies and brain region associated with sleep-enhanced learning of a sequential finger tapping task akin to typing, or playing piano. 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — You take your piano lesson, you go to sleep and when you wake up your fingers are better able to play that beautiful sequence of notes. How does sleep make that difference? A new study helps to explain what happens in your brain during those fateful, restful hours when motor learning takes hold.

"The mechanisms of memory consolidations regarding motor memory learning were still uncertain until now," said Masako Tamaki, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University and lead author of the study that appears Aug. 21 in the Journal of Neuroscience. "We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness. We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep."

In part because it employed three different kinds of brain scans, the research is the first to precisely quantify changes among certain brainwaves and the exact location of that changed brain activity in subjects as they slept after learning a sequential finger-tapping task. The task was a sequence of key punches that is cognitively akin to typing or playing the piano.