Burning Midnight Oil Shuts Down Long-Term Memory

Have you put in a bunch late hours working on a crunch project or studying for a test, only to find the next morning your memory isn't as sharp as you expected? Scientists have known for a while that the brain's biological (or circadian) clock influences natural body cycles, such as sleep and wakefulness, metabolic rate and body temperature. New research on sea snails at the University of Houston (UH) suggests the circadian clock also may regulate the formation of memory at night.

Scientists discovered sea snails long-term memories were forged when sea snails were trained during the day but not at night. However, short-term memories of those same things were formed equally well day or night. That might explain why "cramming" the night before a big presentation or test may help you get by for a day or two, but you're unable to retain much of the information for the long term.

The formation of memory happens at places in the brain called synapses, UH researchers said, where cells "communicate" with each other through the release of chemicals called transmitter substances. For those transmitters to work, once they are released, they must be cleared away so that others can subsequently act. Glutamate transport molecules, which act as the brain's cleaning crew during learning and memory formation, actually increase once the long-term memory-forming process begins. Deficiencies in these transporters that affect the strength of connections among the neurons associated with memory may explain why memory lapses -- such as forgetting where you last laid down your keys -- occur.

Researchers also hope to shed some light on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's - marked by a loss of brain function due to the deterioration of neurons.

Studies like this lend more creedence explain why I place such a high premium on getting the right amount of sleep to optimize your health. Too little sleep can shorten your life or help you gain weight.

If you need to learn how to get more sleep, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep. Whether you are unable to fall asleep, wake up too often, don't feel well-rested when you wake up in the morning or simply want to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, my guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve this problem.

Science Blog February 28, 2005

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