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If You Want to Master a New Skill Take Plenty of Breaks While Practicing

Researchers studied healthy volunteers to map out brain activity during learning new skills. They also found that taking short breaks from practice is crucial for learning.

Researchers from National Institute of Health found that volunteers with rest had faster brains, and were able to replay the activity more often than they did while practicing typing code. The more a volunteer replayed the activity the better they performed during subsequent practice sessions, suggesting rest strengthened memories.

“Our findings confirm the idea that regular sleep is equally important as practice in learning new skills. Leonardo G. Cohen is the senior author of the study. He said it seems to be the time our brains compress and consolidate memory of what we just learned. Understanding the role of neural replay can help us learn new skills and help stroke patients recover their skills.

The study was done at the NIH Clinical Center. Dr. Cohen used a sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography to record brain waves from 33 healthy right-handed volunteers who learned to type five-digit test codes with their left fingers.

The subjects sat down in a chair, and the scanner’s cone-shaped cap covered them. When a subject was shown the code (41234) on a screen, they were asked to enter it as many times possible for 10 second. Then, they were instructed to take a 10-second break and type it again. The subject was asked to continue this cycle of practice and rest for a total 35 times.

After the first few trial, the speed at typing correctly improved markedly. This was followed by a plateau around the 11th and 12th cycles. In a previous study, led by former NIH postdoctoral fellow Marlene Bonstrup, Dr. Cohen’s team showed that most of these gains happened during short rests, and not when the subjects were typing.

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These gains were higher than those experienced after a sleepless night and were correlated to a decrease of beta rhythms, or brain waves. Researchers searched for something else in brain waves of subjects in this new report.

“We wanted the mechanisms of memory strengthening observed during wakeful rest to be explored. Ethan R. Buch (staff scientist, Dr. Cohen, and leader of this study) stated that many forms of memory seem to rely upon the replaying of neural activity.

Leonardo Claudino was a former postdoctoral fellow at Dr. Cohen’s laboratory. He helped Dr. Buch to develop a computer program that allowed them to interpret the brainwave activity associated with each number in the test codes.

They discovered that the program allowed them to replay a faster version of the brain activity during typing, which was about 20 times faster. Over the course of the first eleven practice trials, these compressed versions of the activity were replayed many times–about 25 times–per rest period. This was two to three times more often than the activity seen during later rest periods or after the experiments had ended, the study, published in Cell Reports explains.

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It was interesting to note that memory strengthening can be predicted by the frequency with which replays are made during rest. In other words: Subjects who replayed the typing activity frequently showed higher performance after each trial than those that did it less often.

Dr. Buch stated, “In the early stages of the learning curve we noticed that wakeful replay was compressed and frequent in time. It also a good predictor in variability in learning an new skill across individuals.” This suggests that the brain connects the memories needed to learn a new skill during wakeful sleep.

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As expected, the team discovered replay activity in the brain’s sensorimotor areas, which are responsible controlling movements. However, they also saw activity within other brain regions such as the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus.

“We were a bit surprised by these last results. It was previously believed that the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus might not play a significant role in procedural memories.

Dr. Cohen stated, “Our results indicate that these regions are fast chattering to the sensorimotor cortex when learning these kinds of skills.” “Overall our results support that manipulating replay activity during wakefulness may be a powerful tool researchers can use to help individuals acquire new skills more quickly and facilitate stroke rehabilitation.

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