Mind

Want a Better Brain? Sleep On It

Solid evidence that brain cells form new connections during sleep.

By Kat McGowanNov 26, 2014 6:00 AM
Katharine Asher/Ikon Images/Corbis

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Brain scientists know sleep improves memory, but why and how has been a tough nut to crack. Some evidence suggested brain cells form new connections during sleep; other evidence suggested sleep pares away existing connections.

Neurobiologist Wen-Biao Gan of New York University’s School of Medicine and his team saw solid proof of the former. They taught mice a physical task and then watched their brains as the animals slept — and saw neurons forming new connections.

To observe the changes, the team used genetically altered mice that produced a fluorescent protein gene that made certain neurons visible. The mice were divided into two groups: one that slept after learning a physical task and one that didn’t. When Gan imaged their brains, he found mice that had slept developed more dendrites — the tiny filaments that allow neurons to communicate — than did sleep-deprived mice.

These observations, announced in June, demonstrate that deep, non-dreaming sleep helps create new brain-cell connections, at least, Gan says, when learning physical tasks.

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