During sleep, brain regions synchronize to create motor memory

When the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry makes a free throw, his brain draws on motor memory. Now researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF) have shown how this type of memory is consolidated during sleep, when the brain processes the day’s learning to make the physical act of doing something subconscious.

The study, published Dec. 14, 2022, in Nature, shows the brain does this by reviewing the trials and errors of a given action. In the analogy, that means sorting through all the free throws Curry has ever thrown, weeding out the memory of all the actions except those that hit the mark, or that the brain decided were “good enough.” The result is the ability to make the free throw with a high degree of accuracy without having to think about the physical movements involved.

“Even elite athletes makes errors, and that’s what makes the game interesting,” said Karunesh Ganguly, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “Motor memory isn’t about perfect performance. It’s about predictable errors and predictable successes. As long as the errors are stable from day to day, the brain says, ‘Let’s just lock this memory in.'”

Ganguly and his team found that the “locking in” process involves some surprisingly complex communication between different parts of the brain and takes place during the deep restorative slumber known as non-REM sleep.

Sleep is important because our conscious brains tend to focus on the failures, said Ganguly, who previously identified the sleep-associated brain waves that influence skill retention.

“During sleep, the brain is able to sift through all the instances it’s taken in and bring forward the patterns that were successful,” he said.

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