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Humans can learn new information during sleep

Abstract

During sleep, humans can strengthen previously acquired memories, but whether they can acquire entirely new information remains unknown. The nonverbal nature of the olfactory sniff response, in which pleasant odors drive stronger sniffs and unpleasant odors drive weaker sniffs, allowed us to test learning in humans during sleep. Using partial-reinforcement trace conditioning, we paired pleasant and unpleasant odors with different tones during sleep and then measured the sniff response to tones alone during the same nights' sleep and during ensuing wake. We found that sleeping subjects learned novel associations between tones and odors such that they then sniffed in response to tones alone. Moreover, these newly learned tone-induced sniffs differed according to the odor pleasantness that was previously associated with the tone during sleep. This acquired behavior persisted throughout the night and into ensuing wake, without later awareness of the learning process. Thus, humans learned new information during sleep.

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Figure 1: Partial-reinforcement trace conditioning between tones and odors during sleep.
Figure 2: EEG spectral analysis verified sleep during learning.
Figure 3: The sniff response revealed learning during sleep.
Figure 4: The sniff response revealed learning during NREM and REM sleep.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank R. Paz for advice. This work was supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

A.A. conceived the idea. A.A. and N.S. designed experiments. A.A., L.S. and M.B.-S. carried out the experiments. A.A. analyzed the data. K.N., A.O. and A.A. carried out sleep scoring. A.A., I.S.H., A.O. and N.S. wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anat Arzi.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Figures 1 and 2, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 (PDF 1155 kb)

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Arzi, A., Shedlesky, L., Ben-Shaul, M. et al. Humans can learn new information during sleep. Nat Neurosci 15, 1460–1465 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3193

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