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Want to pass your exams? Sleep! Pulling an all-nighter ‘won’t work’ because sleep is vital to memory

It is the age-old trick of students the world over – pulling all-nighters to cram for an exam.

But a team of experts at Brandeis University in Massachusetts have a few words of wisdom, urging students to put down the coffee and sleep.

They believe the memory neurons that are responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term ones, work most effectively when a person is asleep.

Scientists have long known that sleep, memory and learning are deeply connected.

Most animals, from flies to humans, have trouble remembering when they are sleep-deprived.

And studies have shown that sleep is critical in converting short-term memories, into long-term memory, a process known as memory consolidation.

But just how that process works has remained a mystery.

One body of thinking questions whether the mechanism that promotes sleep is also responsible for consolidating memory.

While another asks if the two distinct process work together.

In other words, is memory consolidated during sleep because the brain is quiet, allowing memory neurons to go to work, or are memory neurons actually putting us to sleep?

Graduate students, Paula Haynes and Bethany Christmann, at the university’s Griffith Lab, believe the answer is the latter.

They focussed their research on dorsal paired medial neurons, well-known memory consolidators in fruit flies.

The pair noted, for the first time, that when the neurons are activated, the flies slept more, but when they were deactivated, the flies kept buzzing.

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These memory consolidators cause the flies to fall asleep, as they begin to convert short-term memory to long-term memory.

Ms Haynes and Ms Christmann said this all takes place in a section of the fly’s brain called the mushroom body – similar to the hippocampus in humans, which is where our memories are stored.

The parts of the fly’s mushroom body, which is responsible for memory and learning is the same part that keeps it awake.

Ms Christmann, said: ‘It’s almost as if that section of the mushroom body were saying, “hey, stay awake and learn this”.

‘Then, after a while, the DPM neurons start signalling to suppress that section, as if to say, “you’re going to need sleep if you want to remember this later”.’

Understanding how sleep and memory are connected in a simple system, like fruit flies, can help scientists unravel the secrets of the human brain.

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