Sleep and Memory in the Aging Brain
Editor's Note: My husband recently spent an overnight at a UCSF Sleep Disorders Center testing laboratory, as we suspected he had sleep apnea. After a somewhat uncomfortable night 'wired-up' for the test, suspicions were confirmed, and he will be using a CPAP machine to help him breathe at night - and perhaps restore a more restful night for myself.
New findings reveal a connection between sleep and memory, and shed light on why forgetfulness is common in the elderly.
Our brains naturally deteriorate with age. Sleep quality — specifically the slow-wave activity that occurs during deep sleep — also decreases as we get older. Previous research found that slow waves are generated in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which exhibits age-related deterioration.
A team of neuroscientists led by Drs. Bryce Mander and Matthew Walker at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to explore whether age-related changes in sleep and brain structure are linked to impaired memory. Their study included 18 healthy young adults (ages 18 to 25) and 15 healthy older adults (ages 61 to 81).
Before going to sleep, the subjects memorized and were tested on 120 word pairs. While they slept, their brain activity was measured using an electroencephalogram. After 8 hours of sleep, the subjects were tested on the same word pairs, this time while undergoing functional MRI (fMRI) scans to measure changes in brain activity. The study, funded by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), appeared online on January 27, 2013, in Nature Neuroscience. In that issue, the journal presents a special focus issue highlighting recent advances and discussing future directions in memory research.
Memory performance in older adults was significantly worse than in their younger counterparts. Older adults also had significantly less slow-wave activity. Brain structures differed between the age groups as well, with the most degeneration in the older group in the mPFC. Interestingly, reduced mPFC volume was associated with lower slow-wave activity, regardless of age.
To confirm that diminished memory retention in older adults was sleep-dependent, the researchers had participants perform the same word-pair memory task after an 8-hour period of wakefulness. Older adults still performed worse on the memory tasks than the younger group. However, while sleep improved memory retention for the younger group, this overnight sleep benefit was markedly impaired in the older adults.
Older adults, the fMRI scans revealed, relied more heavily on their hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory formation, to perform memory tasks. Younger adults, on the other hand, relied more on the mPFC.
Taken together, these findings suggest that, as we age, changes in the mPFC reduce slow-wave activity during sleep, which contributes to a decline in establishing long-term memory. As slow-wave activity wanes, the brain must rely more heavily for memory tasks on the hippocampus, a structure designed for short-term memory storage.
— by Meghan Mott, Ph.D.
- Resting May Boost Memory:
- Sleep-Deprived Neurons Caught Nodding Off:
- Aging and Memory:
- Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep:
- Your Guide to Healthy Sleep:
- The Need for Sleep:
- After the Great Recession: Long-term Unemployment and Older Women
- New York City Through An 85-Year-Old’s Eyes; Following 20 Older New Yorkers Over One Year
- Restoring Youth: To Reach Back and Touch the Girls We Had Once Been
- How Great to See You! You Look Marvelous! And Other High School Reunion Tales
- Forgiving Others Appears to Help Decrease Levels of Depression, Particularly for Women
- Joan L. Cannon Reviews: All Passion Spent, The Book and a DVD
- Between Two Worlds: Cruising the Turquoise Coast
- Balance and Driving Skills: Boosting Older Adults’ Vision Through Training
- Olfactory Dysfunction is a Harbinger of Mortality: "We believe olfaction is the canary in the coalmine of human health"
- Young Forever? No Thanks!