(Note: This article was originally published elsewhere, but the content is obviously relevant to our discussions here at the Train Your Brain Blog. Thus, we are re-posting.)
Parents and coaches of students and athletes concerned about improving academic and athletic performance may be missing one of the most important factors, according to one of the co-founders of the Miami-based Brain Training Centers of Florida.
“Sleep may be the most over-looked component of academic and athletic success,” reports Francis J. Flynn, Psy. D., CAP, whose firm helps clients achieve brain balance and homeostasis. “Researchers are constantly pointing to the importance of sleep. The scientific evidence indicates that too many people, especially students, are suffering from various levels of sleep deprivation and their performance is suffering because of it.”
There’s no animal that doesn’t sleep. Even the dolphin – which some used to argue don’t sleep because they keep moving – seem to sleep with one eye closed and one half its brain showing the slow waves characteristic of deep sleep.
“At Brain Training Centers our programs of neuro-feedback allow clients to quickly improve the quality and quantity of their sleep and their moods and personal performance – academically, at work and in sports – quickly reflects the difference.”
In a study of six healthy members of the Stanford University men’s basketball team, athletes who got extra sleep were more likely to improve their performance in a game. The Stanford study, authored by Cheri Mah, found significant improvements in athletic performance, including faster sprint times and increased free throw percentages, when the student athletes were encouraged to obtain as much extra sleep as possible. The athletes also indicated an improvement in mood associated with increased sleep.
From researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, comes a report that sleep helps clear room in the brain for new learning. Synapses are the connecting points between brain cells; they’re the junctures where nerve cells communicate with each other. Scientists have long believed that the creation of new synapses is one of the most important ways the brain encodes or develops memories and learning.
Thanks to fruit flies, which mature very rapidly, have very short lives and have sleep similar to human sleep, scientists are able to track the creation of new synapses during learning experiences and show that sleep appears to allow synapses to strengthen or consolidate information learned during the day; during sleep these synapses associated with important information rest and stay health while synapses formed by inessential day-to-day experiences appear to drop off. It’s a complex process built around the action of specific proteins in the synapses. But the critical idea is that these synapses grow stronger while we are awake and learning and sleep refreshes the brain by bringing the synapses back to a lower level of strength. Sleep allows the brain to save energy, space and material and clear away useless or unnecessary “noise” from the previous day. As a result, the well-rested brain is ready to learn more the next morning.
It appears that even the most unimportant experiences of the day cause the formation of synapses. When we sleep, these unimportant synapses are discarded by the brain – making room for the next day’s new synapses.
Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health point out that sleep is strictly regulated by the brain, because sleep deprivation is followed by a rebound – we either sleep longer or spend more time in the deeper sleep characterized by large slow brain waves. They argue that sleep is critical to brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to continue to grow and change throughout our lives. Cirelli and Tononi believe that sleep allows the brain to regroup after a hard day of learning by giving the synapses, which increase in strength during the day, a chance to rest or damp down to baselines levels during sleep. Because the brain uses up to 80 percent of its energy to sustain synaptic activity, sleep is important in allowing the brain to renew itself.
At St. Lawrence University (Canton, N.Y.) associate professor of psychology Pamela Thacher studied 111 students and found that students who regularly pulled all-nighters had lower GPAs and, while procrastination is not associated with all-nighters, both practices – procrastination and all-nighters – were significantly correlated with lower GPAs.
At the University of North Texas, researcher Kendry Clay studied 824 undergraduates and found that “morning types” had higher GPAs than “evening types.” And, at the University of Minesota Boynton Health Service Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the director and chief health officer, reporting on the most comprehensive study of college students’ health in the nation, found a direct link between students’ health and their academic achievement. In the study of 9,931 students from 14 Minnesota colleges and universities, students who reported having fewer nights of adequate sleep had a mean GPA of 3.08 compared with a 3.27 mean GPA for students who did not report sleep deficiencies.
One solution for students who have a difficult time falling asleep: white noise. Central Michigan University psychology professor Carl Johnson and LeAnne Forquer, now a member of the psychology faculty at Delta State Univesity in Cleveland, Miss., found that the use of continuous white noise may help college students sleep better and was effective for students with self-reported sleep problems to decrease difficulty in falling asleep and night-wakings.
If you’re the parent or a relative of an otherwise healthy (not overweight or obese) teen who’s always tired, orthodontist and researcher Mark Hans, DDS, MSD of Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine in Cleveland may have discovered the reason why he can never get enough sleep: Check the formation of his hyoid bone, which helps to support the tongue and serves as an attachment point for several muscles that help to elevate the larynx during swallowing and speech. Hans found that the same x-rays teens get before getting braces can help correctly identify 70 percent of teens with sleep apnea, a chronic condition that causes people to stop breathing during sleep – and often leaves them tired during the day.
Teens whose hyoid bones sit higher are not at risk for sleep apnea; the lower the bone, the greater the risk of the condition. Early and proper diagnosis can make early treatment – and the avoidance of many problems – possible. And, radiological evaluation is relatively inexpensive – about $100 – when compared to the $1000 or more it might cost for an evaluation in a sleep lab.