A new study found that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) can transform the things children experience when they are awake to lasting memories and that an enzyme vital to brain development is secreted only during this stage of sleep. With this, REM is crucial to the overall development of children's brains. Although previous studies have suggested that sleep is important for child health, the exact details of how REM modifies or influences memories remain unknown.
The researchers, led by Marcos Frank, professor of medical sciences at the Washington State University, analyzed the effects of sleep to the development of vision of young animal subjects. The scientist based their experiment on the 1960s observation made by doctors regarding the development of double vision and impaired alignment of the eyes in children whose congenital cataracts were not removed promptly. Because the visual cortex of children is highly sensitive, any form of blockage during this period may result in such problems. With this as their premise, the researchers tested the study animals by placing a patch over one eye, both during waking and sleeping hours. The researchers occasionally woke the animals up while in the stage of REM through gentle taps. The control group was aroused during non-REM periods. Their brain activities were monitored throughout the entire experiment.
The findings of the study published in Science Advances, show that neural pathways are modified as the study subjects experience new things, but necessitate REM in order to retain such experiences in their memory banks. The scientists explained that it is through an enzyme called Extracellular-regulated kinases (ERK), released during the REM stage that this memory retainment becomes possible. Children's brains undergo crucial periods of plasticity or remodeling when several developmental aspects such as speech, vision and cognition, are developed. The current study then suggests that REM aids the brains to adapt to the surge of neuronal networks during this period and hence, enable the children to equalize the things they receive from their surroundings, says Frank.
The researchers also found that the brain activity patterns noted when the animals were under REM sleep are similar to those noted during their waking hours.
"It's as if the neurons were dreaming of their waking experience," he said. "This is the first time these similar events have been reported to occur in the developing brain during REM sleep," said Frank.
There might be a possibility that REM may be beneficial to the development of other parts of the brain, outside of the visual cortex.
The study creates a huge impact on how sleeping in children is comprehended, says Frank. Several studies suggest that sleeping may affect children's school performance and this study may help to explain the reason why, as well the reasons why people should be mindful of sleep restriction in children.
Franks also notes that pediatricians are increasingly prescribing medications such as antidepressants that affect the brain in the early stages of life. There is very minimal information available to explain how these drugs can affect young brains in the acute and chronic settings. In the end, Franks says almost all compounds can possibly affect sleep, specifically REM sleep, which is very vulnerable and may be easily suppressed by medications without difficulty.