hands playing pianoWhy is sleep important? Among other reasons, a good night’s sleep is an important part of learning motor skills. Researchers at the University of Montreal found that a particular brain network is critical to training the body and that this network is stronger after a night of sleep. The results suggest that people working to master motor skills—like playing an instrument—benefit from a schedule that accounts for sleep.

The researchers taught the study’s subjects a series of piano-type finger movements on a box. While the subjects learned, the researchers observed their brain patterns using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). After the subjects slept for a night, the researchers used the fMRI a second time. A control group completed the same movement task, but did not sleep inbetween fMRI scans. Instead, the researchers observed their brain patterns at the beginning and the end of a day. Afterwards, the researchers analyzed the integration of the subjects’ brain networks using a brain connectivity analysis technique.

The group that slept inbetween scans demonstrated improved performance on the task after sleeping. The control group did not exhibit the same improvements. The researchers found that the brain’s corticostriatial network, composed of cortical and subcortical areas, was more integrated after a night of sleep. The consolidation of this brain network lead to better performance on the motor-learning task.

The findings emphasize the importance of sleeping when learning motor skills. The study has implications for early childhood development and therapies for populations who struggle to learn motor skills.

“Our findings open the door to other research opportunities, which could lead us to better understand the mechanisms that take place during sleep and ensure better interactions between key regions of the brain,” commented Dr. Julien Doyon, Scientific Director of the Functional Neuroimaging Unit at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal Research Centre. “Ultimately, we believe that we will better be able to explain and act on memory difficulties presented by certain clinical populations who have sleeping problems and help patients who are relearning motor sequences in rehabilitation centers.”

This research is published in the journal NeuroImage.

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