As a college student, getting an adequate amount of sleep is extremely challenging. Having to balance classes, extracurricular activities, research positions, all while maintaining a social life is no easy feat. For example, just yesterday, I found myself in the library at 2 AM working on an eight-page English paper. With a large coffee on one side of my laptop, an increasingly large pile of reference books on the other, and a slight twitch in my left eye, I found myself calculating how long I could nap for the next day while simultaneously attending all my classes. We’ve all been here at some point or another; it seems the older we get and the more responsibilities that accumulate, the less time we have for sleep.
Despite this, the significance of a good night’s sleep has been drilled into our heads. Personally, I was always under the impression that getting sufficient sleep was just to avoid feeling like absolute death in the morning. Turns out, however, that there are scientific implications that come with a proper amount of sleep. A study led by Sidarta Ribeiro at the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil, suggests that sleeping triggers the synapses of our brains to both strengthen and weaken, consequently prompting the forgetting, strengthening, or modification of our memories in a process known as long-term potentiation (LTP).
Image Source: Sam Edwards
In the study, Ribeiro and his team measured the levels of a protein related to LTP during the sleep cycles of rats. The researchers then used the data to build models of sleep-dependent synaptic plasticity, which measured the impact of sleep on synaptic plasticity, a measure of the strengthening or deterioration of synapses. Strengthening synapses bolsters one’s ability to learn and memorize information, and weakening them does the opposite. The results show that sleep can have completely different effects depending on whether or not LTP is present. A lack of LTP leads to memory erasure, while the presence of LTP can either strengthen memories or prompt the emergence of new ones.
So, the question that now must be asked is, “Well, how do I know when LTP is present?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question is unknown and to be determined. But for now, the next time you’re absolutely panicking about an exam requiring an absurd amount of knowledge, try to get a good night’s sleep. You never know—LTP might just kick in!