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Motor Skill Efficiency is Tied to Sleep

Posted Sep 08 2010 9:35am

If you’ve ever felt klutzy after missing out on sleep, there’s scientific evidence to back you up. It’s a fact that, when learning a new action pattern involving motor skills, performance improvement can continue for up to 24 hours after training. Recent research shows that getting some sleep can make that window of improvement even more effective. In a study by Matthew Walker and his team from Harvard’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology, it was discovered that a night of sleep can increase motor skill speed by 20% without losing accuracy.

Stage 2 NREM Sleep

Walker and his team designed an experiment involving five groups, whose members underwent different combinations of training for a skill involving fine finger tapping movements, wakefulness, sleep, and finger rest. The researchers found that Stage 2 NREM sleep was the most effective way of improving motor skills, especially when this stage of the cycle occurred late at night. Stage 2 NREM, or Non-Rapid Eye Movement, can be described as an intermediate stage of sleep in which the sleeper descends progressively deeper into unconsciousness. This stage is characterized by larger brain waves than Stage 1 NREM, accompanied by occasional episodes of quick activity. Someone who is in this stage of sleep would not be able to see even if their eyes were opened, would be unlikely to be awakened by sounds, and would have slower bodily functions.

Sleep Stages and Motor Skill Development

There was a considerable amount of variance between subjects who slept and those who didn’t, and the researchers found that 52% of that difference in improvement could be accounted for by Stage 2 NREM sleep. But the amount of improvement by sleep stage could change depending upon the complexity of the task being learned. When subjects have been instructed to learn skills that involve more finely tuned movements, they have been shown to react negatively to REM sleep deprivation. Walker and his team hypothesize that the level of complexity that characterizes a learned task is associated with a certain sleep stage, with more difficult tasks responding to REM stages and less challenging tasks responding to NREM sleep. Either way, getting enough sleep while you learn can help you increase the level of your performance on a variety of tasks.

Walker, Matthew P. et al. “Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning.” Neuron 35 (July 2002): 205-211.

Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She spends much of her days blogging about Education and CollegeScholarships . In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.


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