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?