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Sleep May Trim Neural Connections to Restore Learning Ability

Mouse studies support homeostasis theory

Science Update

Why do we sleep? Companion studies in mice by NIMH grantees add to evidence that sleep may be the price we pay for the ability to learn. The results suggest that sleep streamlines neural connections, or synapses, making them more efficient. It likely restores homeostatic balance to energy resources spent by learning during wakefulness, say the researchers. This is accomplished by the downsizing and weakening of unneeded connections –a selective forgetting, so to speak. A team led by Giulio Tononi, M.D., Ph.D., and Chiara Cirelli, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin found that 80 percent of cortex synapses sampled shrunk by nearly 20% during sleep. Another team led by Richard Huganir, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University found that key cell surface receptor proteins in those synapses similarly plummet during sleep – and ID’d the underlying molecular mechanisms. All this makes room for new learning, according to the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis proposed by the researchers.

Neural connections form at the tips of brain cell’s branch-like extensions. Such synapses grew during wakefulness and shrank during sleep, likely refreshing learning ability. 

Neural connections form at the tips of brain cell’s branch-like extensions. Such synapses grew during wakefulness and shrank during sleep, likely refreshing learning ability.
Source: Wisconsin Center for Sleep and Consciousness

An electron microscope was used to image synapses in the mouse brain. 

An electron microscope was used to image synapses in the mouse brain.
Source: John Maniaci/UW Health

More Information

UW press release:
UW sleep research high-resolution images show how the brain resets during sleep  

JHU press release:
Sleep deprivation handicaps the brain's ability to form new memories study in mice shows

References

Ultrastructural evidence for synaptic scaling across the wake/sleep cycle. de Vivo L, Bellesi M, Marshall W, Bushong EA, Ellisman MH, Tononi G, Cirelli C. Science. 2017 Feb 3;355(6324):507-510. doi: 10.1126/science.aah5982. PMID: 28154076

Homer1a drives homeostatic scaling-down of excitatory synapses during sleep. Diering GH, Nirujogi RS, Roth RH, Worley PF, Pandey A, Huganir RL. Science. 2017 Feb 3;355(6324):511-515. doi: 10.1126/science.aai8355. PMID: 28154077

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