Sleep Frees the Hippocampus for New Memory Contents

Research team at the University of Tübingen is monitoring how the cerebral cortex works as a long-term information store

cancer, hippocampus

Two regions of our brain are used to store memory contents: the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex. While the former is required, especially at short notice, to absorb new information, the latter can store large amounts of information for a long time. Lea Himmer, dr. Monika Schönauer and Professor Steffen Gais from the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Tübingen and their team have investigated how the brain areas share the tasks of consolidating newly learned things and what role sleep plays in this. Using imaging, the research team demonstrated that repetitive training allows new memory trails to be established in the cerebral cortex within a short time frame. However, these are only sufficient on their own if the learning follows a sleep phase – otherwise the brain has to resort additionally to the hippocampus for the permanent storage of new memory contents. The study of the Tübingen neuroscientists appears in the journalScience Advances .

In the new study, the scientists gave their subjects a learning task in which they should memorize a word list in seven repetitions. While performing this task, their brain activity was recorded in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. Twelve hours later, the subjects repeated the same task with the already learned and a new word list. Half of the people had slept during this time, the other half had stayed awake. Repeated practice led within an hour to retrieve what was learned using the posterior parietal lobe, a region of the cerebral cortex. Accordingly, the involvement of the hippocampus decreased. 

Rapid formation of memory traces

“This pattern indicates a rapid formation of memory traces in the cerebral cortex,” says Monika Schönauer. “In addition, the parietal lobe shows even after twelve hours a stronger activity in learned words compared to new words, which speaks for a long-term stability of these tracks.” However, the hippocampus remained uninvolved only if the subjects slept for several hours after the first session. If they stayed awake, they were needed again for familiar words, as well as for new words. “In this way we show that memory processes proceed in the sleep that go beyond pure repetition. Learning repeats can create long-term memory traces. Whether the contents can be stored permanently independently of the hippocampus, however, depends crucially on a sleeping phase “,

Sleep therefore had an effect on the hippocampus in the experiment. “How the hippocampus and cerebral cortex work together is still unclear,” says Steffen Gais, head of the working group. “Understanding this interaction is an important step in the evolution of common memory theories.” Understanding the conditions under which memory is stored directly in the cerebral cortex and the role of the hippocampus in understanding fundamental learning and memory impairment is also important significant.