By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that infants are capable of learning while asleep, a finding that may one day provide a means to screen for developmental conditions very early in life.
The study, conducted by William Fifer, Ph.D. and his colleagues at Columbia University in New York, involved the use of an electroencephalogram, a machine that records the brain’s electrical activity and converts it into patterns, to record the brain activity of each sleeping infant, and a video camera.
During the study, researchers played a tone, while a machine blew a faint puff of air at the eyelids of each sleeping infant. In response to the air puff, the infants reflexively squeezed their closed lids tighter.
The researchers repeated this nine times, each time pairing the air puff with the tone. For the tenth time in the sequence, however, the researchers played the tone without the air puff. This sequence was repeated over and over again.
After roughly 20 minutes, most of the infants (24 out of 26) would scrunch their faces in response to the tone that was not accompanied by the air puff. Moreover, the electroencephalogram detected changes in brain wave activity that occurred simultaneously with the tone, which the researchers interpret as further evidence that the infants had learned to associate the tone with the air puff.
“The current experiment is the first to demonstrate that newborn infants are capable of learning about relationships between stimuli while asleep,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers added that it is not known whether learning to make such associations during sleep is unique to infants or could also occur in adults. It’s possible that the ability might diminish with age.
What makes this study so significant is that this type of learning is controlled by the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is implicated in many developmental disorders. This non-invasive measure of cerebellar function in sleeping newborn infants might later provide a means to screen for developmental conditions very early in life, Dr. Fifer said.
Funding for the study was provided by the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and was published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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