Newswise – One of the biggest complaints that doctors hear is insomnia. A recent poll by the National Science Foundation found that only 50% of Americans get a good night’s sleep a few nights each week. Why do we need to sleep, anyway? Sleep researchers are studying animals in order to figure this out. For instance, they have found birds and reptiles that can put half their brain to sleep while keeping the other half alert to watch for predators. They also want to know how cats can sleep so deeply, yet spring instantly awake. If we could find a medicine that could do that for us, our sleep problems would be over.

“Sleep renders an animal more vulnerable to predatory attack than just about any other behavior. However, sleeping animals are not helplessly turned off, and certain states of sleep and ways to sleep are safer than others,” sleep researchers say. They’ve found that having a brain that’s half-asleep and half-awake is not uncommon in birds. Biologist Steven Lima says, “We do think that across the animal world this is a very typical sort of thing. They all have to deal with this in one way or another, either sleeping in a very safe place so they can sleep very deeply, or if they can’t sleep in a safe place they’re going to have to sleep less deeply, perhaps, and monitor the environment to some extent while they’re sleeping.”

Reptiles are also able to put only half of their brain to sleep. Sleep researcher John Lesku says, “Iguanas and other reptiles have all been seen for extended periods of time sitting with one eye open and one eye closed.”

Why do we need to sleep, anyway? A good night’s sleep triggers changes in the brain that help to improve learning and memory. This explains why children, and especially infants, sleep so much more than adults. It may also be why people recovering from strokes sleep for long periods of time.

Sleep researcher Matthew Walker says, “?A period of sleep could help people improve their performance of ‘memory tasks,’ such as playing piano scales.” If you’re trying to learn something difficult, like math or a foreign language, it doesn’t help to stay up late and study. You need sleep so your memory can retain the information it’s been exposed to.

Walker says, “We didn?t know exactly how or why this was happening [but] by using an MRI, we can actually see which parts of the brain are active and which are inactive. While [sleeping] subjects are being tested, enabling us to better understand the role of sleep to memory and learning.

“The MRI scans are showing us that brain regions shift dramatically during sleep. When you’re asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions within the brain. Consequently, when you awaken, memory tasks can be performed both more quickly and accurately and with less stress and anxiety.” This new information is already causing changes in the work schedules of residents in hospitals, who are training to be doctors.

New memories are formed within the brain when a person engages with information to be learned (for example, memorizing a list of words or mastering a piano concerto). However, these memories are initially quite vulnerable; in order to “stick” they must be solidified and improved. This process of “memory consolidation” occurs when connections between brain cells as well as between different brain regions are strengthened, and for many years was believed to develop merely as a passage of time. More recently, however, it has been demonstrated that time spent asleep also plays a key role in preserving memory.

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