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Physiological function of sleep

For long, the physiological function of sleep has not been clear. In most people’s mind, sleep is associated with rest and time for mental regeneration. Restorative, protective and energy-conserving theories of sleep have been quite popular until quite recently when it became apparent that one long-lasting sleep episode with suppression of consciousness does not seem to be the right way for the evolution to tackle depleted resources, toxic wastes or energy conservation (e.g. your muscles do not shut off completely to get rest). The critical function of sleep is dramatically illustrated in experiments in which rats chronically deprived of sleep eventually die (usually within 2.5 weeks). See: Is REM involved in memory formation? In evolutionary terms, sleep is a very old phenomenon and it clearly must play a role that is critical to survival. Only quite recently, it has been proven beyond doubt that the function of sleep is related to learning! ([2] not all scientists agree!) Researchers have long known the particular importance of the hippocampus, a small brain organ, for memory formation. Yet it has always been difficult to find out what is special about the hippocampus that distinguishes it from other areas of the cerebral cortex that also show synaptic plasticity, i.e. the ability to store memories. Ground-breaking theories of Dr György Buzsáki and his two-stage model of memory trace formation have inspired further research that sheds new light on what is actually happening during sleep [Buzsáki, 1989] (do not confuse this two-stage model with the two-component model of memory or with the two-component model of sleep regulation below). Using his knowledge of neural networks, ingenuous experiments on neuronal firing, and sophisticated mathematical analysis of spatiotemporal firing patterns, Buzsáki provided an good model explaining how the two components of sleep, REM and non-REM sleep, work together to consolidate memories. The hippocampus acts as the central switchboard for the brain that can easily store short-term memory patterns. However, these patterns have to be encoded in the neocortex to provide space for coding new short-term memories. This complex process of rebuilding the neural network of the brain takes place during sleep. Unlike rest or conservation of energy, this highest feat of evolutionary neural mathematics, requires the brain to be shut off entirely from environmental input! This automatic rewiring is the main reason for which we sleep and why there is no conscious processing involved! During sleep, the brain works as hard as during SAT or GRE exams. It rewires its circuits to make sure that all newly gained knowledge is optimally stored for future use. If you have some basic understanding of neurophysiology and neural networks, here is an article that makes an excellent reading about the neural functions of sleep: Slow wave sleep contribution to memory consolidation.  

Source: http://www.supermemo.com/articles/sleep.htm

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