Whether you’re at university or in the workplace, you’re probably familiar with tales of someone working throughout the night in order to get a project delivered on time. You may even be that person yourself. They’re usually promoted as heroic battles against fatigue. Caffeine and pizza fueled epic journeys to ensure the job gets done on time.
The stories are usually branded such as to portray the hero as someone who will stop at nothing to ensure things get done, which is great, except more often than not, what actually gets done is sloppy and poorly prepared. Propping your eyelids open with coffee is seldom a good platform to produce great work from, and a recent study underlines this point.
It looks particularly at the value inherent in staying up all night to study for a test the next day. Does the marathon cramming session actually work? Do we digest any of the text our bleary eyes wander over throughout the night?
Fatigue and memory
It’s long been known within scientific circles that our fatigue levels and capacity to memorise things tend to go hand in hand. Most animals tend to have a hard time remembering things when they’re deprived of sleep, with studies suggesting that sleep plays a crucial role in converting short term memories into long term ones.
How this process works, however, is something that is slightly less well understood. The researchers wanted to test whether the same biological mechanisms that promote sleep, also work in consolidating memory. In other words, does memory get consolidated because of the relatively quiet time our brain experiences during sleep, or do the memory neurons work to put us to sleep?
The paper suggests it may well be the latter. They focused attention on the dorsal paired medial (DPM) neurons that are well known for their role in memory consolidation. They observed that when these neurons are triggered, the subject slept more than normal. When the neurons weren’t activated, the subjects were full of life.
The authors suggest, therefore, that the very act of memory consolidation inhibits our alertness in order to let the brain go about its business converting memories from short to long-term.
"It’s almost as if that section of the brain were saying ’hey, stay awake and learn this,’" the authors say. "Then, after a while, the DPM neurons start signaling to suppress that section, as if to say ’you’re going to need sleep if you want to remember this later.’"
The researchers hope that their findings will go some way to help us understand just how the brain works, especially in areas such as learning.
"Knowing that sleep and memory overlap in the fly brain can allow researchers to narrow their search in humans," the authors conclude. "Eventually, it could help us figure out how sleep or memory is affected when things go wrong, as in the case of insomnia or memory disorders."
Until then though, it might be worth holding off on those all-nighters. You’re probably going to be better off getting some sleep and consolidating what you have learned into your long term memory bank.