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Learning While Sleeping- Infants Can Do That

May 19, 2010

How do infants learn so fast? When do they get time to gather all the new information from the surroundings when most of the time they are sleeping soundly? Well, the new study by researchers at Univ of Florida and Columbia University have found some answers to these questions. Newborns sleep 16-18 hours during the day but even when they are asleep, they keep gathering information from the surroundings semi-consciously and even keep learning from the new information- the new study suggests. So, while you think the baby is fast asleep, it’s learning too. Talk about multi-tasking!

“We found a basic form of learning in sleeping newborns, a type of learning that may not be seen in sleeping adults,” said Dana Byrd, a research affiliate in psychology at UF who collaborated with a team of scientists.“Sleeping newborns are better learners, better ‘data sponges’ than we knew,” she said. [UF News]

In the new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dana Byrd and colleagues studied the learning behavior of sleeping infants. All the 26 infants in the study were 10-73 hours old. Researchers played simple tones/beeps followed by gentle puff of air on their eyelids. Infants responded to the puff of air by squeezing their eyes. After 20 minutes of repeated experiment, majority of the infants (24 out of 26) squeezed their eyes when the beep was introduced, even without the presence of air puff. This shows that the infants learnt to relate the beep with the air puff and responded to it in anticipation of the airpuff, and all this they learnt during the sleep, in just 20 minutes!! Also a change in brain activity was measured using EEG confirming the learning process. This new study can be useful in understanding and identifying developmental disorders  including autism and dyslexia.“This methodology opens up research areas into potentially detecting high risk populations, those who show abnormalities in the neural systems underlying this form of learning,” Byrd said. “These would include siblings of individuals with autism and siblings of those with dyslexia.”[UF News]. Here is abstract of the new study:

Newborn infants must rapidly adjust their physiology and behavior to the specific demands of the novel postnatal environment. This adaptation depends, at least in part, on the infant’s ability to learn from experiences. We report here that infants exhibit learning even while asleep. Bioelectrical activity from face and scalp electrodes was recorded from neonates during an eye movement conditioning procedure in which a tone was followed by a puff of air to the eye. Sleeping newborns rapidly learned the predictive relationship between the tone and the puff. Additionally, in the latter part of training, these infants exhibited a frontally maximum positive EEG slow wave possibly reflecting memory updating. As newborns spend most of their time sleeping, the ability to learn about external stimuli in the postnatal environment during nonawake states may be crucial for rapid adaptation and infant survival. Furthermore, because eyelid conditioning reflects functional cerebellar circuitry, this method potentially offers a unique approach for early identification of infants at risk for a range of developmental disorders including autism and dyslexia.

Fifer et al. www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/1005061107

Also thanks to Flickr user peasap for this awesome picture of his daughter and allowing it to be used under Creative Commons License.

Filed under: Children,Research

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