Letters to Nature

Nature 425, 614-616 (9 October 2003) | doi:10.1038/nature01951; Received 3 June 2003; Accepted 24 July 2003

Consolidation during sleep of perceptual learning of spoken language

Kimberly M. Fenn1, Howard C. Nusbaum1 & Daniel Margoliash1,2

  1. Department of Psychology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA
  2. Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA

Correspondence to: Kimberly M. Fenn1 Email: kmfenn@uchicago.edu

Memory consolidation resulting from sleep has been seen broadly: in verbal list learning1, spatial learning2, 3, and skill acquisition in visual4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and motor9, 10, 11 tasks. These tasks do not generalize across spatial locations or motor sequences, or to different stimuli in the same location5, 11, 12. Although episodic rote learning constitutes a large part of any organism's learning, generalization is a hallmark of adaptive behaviour13. In speech, the same phoneme often has different acoustic patterns depending on context. Training on a small set of words improves performance on novel words using the same phonemes but with different acoustic patterns, demonstrating perceptual generalization14. Here we show a role of sleep in the consolidation of a naturalistic spoken-language learning task that produces generalization of phonological categories across different acoustic patterns. Recognition performance immediately after training showed a significant improvement that subsequently degraded over the span of a day's retention interval, but completely recovered following sleep. Thus, sleep facilitates the recovery and subsequent retention of material learned opportunistically at any time throughout the day. Performance recovery indicates that representations and mappings associated with generalization are refined and stabilized during sleep.