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Sleep May Reduce "Forgetting" Signal in Brain, Study Suggests

Last updated June 27, 2015

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

What happens when you don't sleep? And why do we need to do it anyways? Hank Green from Vlog Brothers explains the science of sleep: the cause, the benefits, and who holds the record for going without it!


A new study from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in Florida suggests through animal models that sleep suppresses the activity of specific cells that promote forgetting. Published in the journal Cell, the researchers believe their model reveals the complexities of sleep and how at least some memories will last.

Ron Davis, the senior author of the latest study, suggests that many scientists focus on a narrow aspect of the associations between sleep and memory. “Many scientists have tried to figure out how we learn and how our memories become stabilized, but far less attention has been paid to forgetting, which is a fundamental function of the brain and potentially has profound consequences for the development of memory therapeutics. Our current study merges the neuroscience of forgetting, that is, the brain mechanisms that lead to forgetting, and the psychology of forgetting into an integrated picture.”

In the animal study, Davis and colleagues investigated the neurotransmitter dopamine and sleep. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that helps the brain adapt and change in response to learning and memory formation. The team discovered that increasing sleep either by drugs or by genetically stimulating the neural sleep circuit decreases the signaling activity of dopamine, thus improving memory. They also found that increasing the mice’s arousal increases the speed of forgetting by stimulating dopamine’s signaling.

"As sleep progresses to deeper levels," Davis adds, "dopamine neurons become less reactive to stimuli, and this leads to more stable memories."

Sleep is a very attractive and debated topic. One of the significant challenges with sleep is that there is minimal communication between the sleeper and the external environment. Scientists are finding more research that sleep is crucial for the preservation and well-being of our brains. Though the National Sleep Foundation hints that sleep is essential for a person’s health, many people are not getting enough or are getting disrupted amounts.

The Institute of Medicine reports that 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from some form of long-term sleep or wake disorder adversely affecting one’s health and longevity. Long-term effects can include hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and stroke. Neurologically, long-term disrupted sleep has been associated with high irritability, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night. 

Written by Stephen Umunna

Primary Reference:

Berry, J. A., Cervantes-Sandoval, I., Chakraborty, M., & Davis, R. L. (2015). Sleep Facilitates Memory by Blocking Dopamine Neuron-Mediated Forgetting.Cell.

Additional References:

  • Altevogt, B. M., & Colten, H. R. (Eds.). (2006). Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation:: An Unmet Public Health Problem. National Academies Press.
  • Bassetti, C. L. (2005, March). Sleep and stroke. In Seminars in neurology (Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 19-32).
  • Bliwise, D. L. (1993). Sleep in normal aging and dementia. Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine.
  • Bopparaju, S., & Surani, S. (2010). Sleep and diabetes. International journal of endocrinology2010.
  • Calhoun, D. A., & Harding, S. M. (2010). Sleep and hypertension. CHEST Journal138(2), 434-443.
  • How Much Sleep Do I Need? (2013, July 1). Retrieved June 26, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.htm
  • Leung, R. S., & Douglas Bradley, T. (2001). Sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine164(12), 2147-2165.
  • Tsuno, N., Besset, A., & Ritchie, K. (2005). Sleep and depression. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
  • Why sleep is important and what happens when you don't get enough. (n.d.). Retrieved June 26, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/topics/sleep/why.aspx 

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: June 27, 2015
Last updated: June 27, 2015