April 2010

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Health Capsule

Resting May Boost Memory

Your memories may grow stronger when you take a break to rest, a new study suggests. The finding could have important implications for how students study and how people can best learn new things.

Long-term storage of a memory—called memory consolidation—is thought to involve interactions between different brain regions, including the hippocampus and parts of the cortex. Scientists believe that the brain “replays” memories, reactivating the same activity patterns as during the experience itself. Several studies suggest that this happens during sleep. NIH-supported researchers set out to investigate whether it can also happen when you’re awake.

The researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of 16 people during 2 different tasks as well as during rest periods before and after. The people were shown paired sets of images that included a human face and either an object, such as a beach ball, or a scene, such as a beach. They weren’t told their memory would be tested. They were just told to rest and think about anything they wanted, as long as they stayed awake.

As expected, correlations between the brain regions were low during the initial period of rest and high when the people were shown the pairings.

The memory for object-face pairs was much better than for scene-face pairs. Activity between the hippocampus and one region of the cortex correlated significantly during the rest period after the people saw the object-face pairs. But this didn’t happen after people saw the scene-face pairs. The higher the correlation between the brain regions during the later rest period, the better the person remembered the pairing.

These results suggest that these brain regions coordinate to replay recent experiences during periods of rest in order to consolidate memories. “Taking a coffee break after class can actually help you retain that information you just learned,” says researcher Dr. Lila Davachi of New York University. “Your brain is working for you when you’re resting.”