The role of sleep in memory consolidation is an ancient question dating back to the Roman rhetorician Quintilian in the first century A.D. Much research in the past decade has been dedicated to better understanding the interaction between sleep and memory. Yet little is understood.
At the molecular level, gene expression responsible for protein synthesis is increased during sleep in rats exposed to enriched environments, suggesting memory consolidation processes are enhanced, or may essentially rely, on sleep. Further, patterns of activity observed in rats during spatial learning are replayed in hippocampal neurons during subsequent sleep, further suggesting that learning may continue in sleep.
In humans, recent studies have demonstrated the benefits of sleep on declarative memory performance, thus giving a neurological basis to the old adage, "sleep on it." A night of sleep reportedly enhances memory for associations between word pairs. Similar overnight improvements on virtual navigation tasks have been observed, which correlate with hippocampal activation during sleep. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, is known to produce deficits in hippocampal activation during declarative memory formation, resulting in poor subsequent retention. Thus, the absence of prior sleep compromises our capacity for committing new experiences to memory. These initial findings suggest an important, if not essential, role for sleep in the consolidation of newly formed memories.