Not getting enough sleep? Here’s why it could be affecting your memory

It’s time for bed, and in addition to my cozy red pajamas decorated with hockey sticks, I’m wearing electrodes all over my body.

With wires sprouting from my scalp, chest and legs, I feel more like Frankenstein than Sleeping Beauty.

“Have a good night,” sings out Stuart Fogel, as he shuts off the light in my austere bedroom at the Royal Ottawa Institute for Mental Health Research.

Then he’s off to the laboratory — where my brain waves will be documented for the next eight hours — to search for clues about how memory works.

“It’s hard to communicate the benefit that you can get from sleep, and the importance of sleep, when so many other things seem to be of greater importance in our daily lives,” Fogel says.

Diane Grant/CBC
Diane Grant/CBC

Researchers have known for a while that sleep is essential to how we form memories. But Fogel, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Sleep Research Laboratory, is keen to uncover exactly how our brains process and synthesize those memories.

His research comes at a time when about a third of Canadian adults get less than seven hours of sleep a night on average, according to Statistics Canada.

And the consequences of sleep deprivation are far more serious than feeling dozy and worn out.

“What’s intriguing is that sleep loss will have an impact on your ability to retain anything that you learn that’s new,” Fogel says.

The research also aims to shed light on how sleep deprivation may contribute to a condition that’s on the rise in Western societies: dementia.

Sleep spindles

Generally, adults spend one-third of their lives sleeping. It’s only in the past few decades that scientists have begun to understand some of the reasons why.

“The more we study this, the more we find how there’s just so many aspects of sleep that are involved in memory processing,” Fogel says.

Fogel has spent several years examining the relationship between memory and “sleep spindles,” the brief bursts of brain activity which occur during deep sleep. These one- to two-second electrical pulses happen up to 1,000 times a night, and can be measured on an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Diane Grant/CBC
Diane Grant/CBC

Researchers believe these spindles show our brain taking what we learn each day and shifting it from the hippocampus, a limited space where we store recent memories, to the prefrontal cortex. That’s the brain’s “hard drive,” where we store important memories for future reference — whether that’s tomorrow, next week, or next year.