Friday, January 15, 2010

Remembering sleep

I attended a faculty development workshop about student learning this week, and I've been mulling something over ever since.

The presenter covered a lot of territory in his day-long presentation, including statistics related to the link between memory and sleep. I couldn't remember the specifics of what he said (probably because, like many parents of children with autism, I don't get nearly as much sleep as I should), so I spent a few minutes Googling it this evening.

I found this article from ScienceDaily from June, 2005. It reads:

A good night's sleep triggers changes in the brain that help to improve memory,according to a new study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).

These findings, reported in the June 30, 2005, issue of the journal Neuroscience and currently published on-line, might help to explain why children -- infants, in particular -- require much more sleep than adults, and also suggest a role for sleep in the rehabilitation of stroke patients and other individuals who have suffered brain injuries...

New memories are formed within the brain when a person engages with information to be learned for example, memorizing a list of words or mastering a piano concerto). However, these memories are initially quite vulnerable; in order to "stick" they must be solidified and improved. This process of "memory consolidation" occurs when connections between brain cells as well as between different brain regions are strengthened, and for many years was believed to develop merely as a passage of time. More recently, however, it has been demonstrated that time spent asleep also plays a key role in preserving memory...

"The MRI scans are showing us that brain regions shift dramatically during sleep," says (Matthew) Walker (PhD, Director of BIDMC's Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory). "When you're asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions within the brain. Consequently, when you awaken, memory tasks can be performed both more quickly and accurately and with less stress and anxiety."

The end result is that procedural skills -- for example, learning to talk, to coordinate limbs, musicianship, sports, even using and interpreting sensory and perceptual information from the surrounding world -- become more automatic and require the use of fewer conscious brain regions to be accomplished.

This new research may explain why children and teenagers need more sleep than adults and, in particular, why infants sleep almost round the clock.

But what might it say about children with autism? What might it indicate about their brain function, sleep cycles, and development?

Why do so many children with autism, like Bud, have trouble sleeping?

How do so many children with autism, like Bud, have extraordinary memories (and, as I have suggested before, what almost appears to be a diminished capacity to forget), in spite of often getting so little sleep?

And how much does their sleep deficiency account for the significant challenges that so many children with autism, like Bud, face with things like "learning to talk, coordinating limbs... (and)using and interpreting sensory and perceptual information from the surrounding world?"

Is there a causal relationship in here somewhere? And, if so, where is the chicken and where is the egg? What is the starting point? Does Bud's brain start as a system with enhanced memory, which then requires less sleep, which then has a negative impact on his language, motor, and sensory development, which then makes him more inclined to put his energy into his area of strength - his memory - which then makes him need less sleep, which then...?

Or does the process start somewhere else?

Or are all of these factors co-occurring but unrelated?

Or are they related, but not causal - are they all a function of a difference that exists in a particular area of the autistic brain?

Is research being done on this?


Niksmom said...

Excellent questions! I'll be fascianted to learn any answeres or information on the subject. If I can remember what the heck we were talking about...

Dr. Claire said...

Yes, there IS research being done on some of it... Mostly in the area of emotional regulation (sound familiar?). I know that the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Children's Clinic are involved in pediatric sleep trials. Not sure of how much they're linking to autism, per se, but if you're looking at emotional regulation, you're looking at autism...

They have found that adolescents with regular sleep patterns have less depression and better regulation that adolescents who are sleep deprived. Can't give the citation, but a quick Google search would find it. But they are also studying the feedback loop where emotional regulation triggers good sleeping patterns. It's all very tied in together- basically, if the brain can FIND those brain waves is a key component.

My mom just gave us a "Star Wars May the Force Be With You" feedback game from (?) Young Explorers?Haven't tried it yet, but am curious... It's a form of biofeedback. I'll let you know if it's worthwhile!

Stephanie said...

Three separate responses:

3) Excellent, essential questions! I haven't got a clue on the answers, but I hope some researcher is working on it.

2) I wonder if something about the process of going to sleep has something to do with it. Alex, who is predominantly non-verbal, tends to have a lot more words when he's on the edge of sleep...whole sentences even. They're not entirely clear, but they're words and sentences with real, relevant meaning.

1) You know, I'm pretty sure I knew sleep and memory were related to each other, but I must have forgotten that. I wonder if lack of sleep has something to do with that? Wait...what were we talking about?

pixiemama said...

Yes, absolutely. I've read many of these types of studies before (when attempting to write about how the body needs sleep, and to promote products that should help people fall asleep).

I am fairly certain that my lack of sleep has contributed to my own short-term memory loss.

I'm wondering how this effects Reilly, in particular, whose brain trauma has affected his ability to wake feeling refreshed. I bet there's a really strong link between this sleep dysfunction and his inability to remember things like how to tell time, and how to count change. I've always wondered why he can't remember which coin is a nickle, dime or quarter.

I think you're onto something.


BTW - Here EVERY DAY reading. LOVE it!

Christine said...

I've actually been mulling a post on this very topic. I see *such* a remarkable difference in my boy -- in all areas -- when he has had a few nights of solid sleep. So thanks for this post. It gives me a bit more food for thought.

Accidental Expert said...

Very interesting stuff. My guy has huge sleep issues -- and BIG emotional regulation stuff too. Hmmm.

KAL said...

Now I know why my short-term memory is shot! Every time I meet a new specialist I ask why there aren't more studies being done on sleep and children with autism. It always amazes me how well J. is able to function on so little sleep and I am not. These are all such excellent questions.