Monday, February 04, 2008

Stronger or weaker brain synapses after sleep?

Why do we spend a third of our lives asleep? The answers suggested so far are varied and controversial. It is well documented that improvement in learning and memory accompanies a night of sleep. One idea is that most new information is discarded during sleep, as diurnal animals are bombarded by stimuli during the day, most of which we want to (or need to) forget. Synapses need to recover. If this is the dominant reason why we sleep, then decreased numbers of synapses or synapse weakening should be a prominent neuronal feature of sleep. Fountain points to an article by Tonini and colleagues (Nature Neuroscience 11, pp. 200 - 208, 2008) that provides evidence for this option. Tononi suggests that after sleep "“we get a leaner brain — there’s a gain in terms of energy, space and supplies, and you are ready to learn anew.” Here is their abstract:
Plastic changes occurring during wakefulness aid in the acquisition and consolidation of memories. For some memories, further consolidation requires sleep, but whether plastic processes during wakefulness and sleep differ is unclear. We show that, in rat cortex and hippocampus, GluR1-containing AMPA receptor (AMPAR) levels are high during wakefulness and low during sleep, and changes in the phosphorylation states of AMPARs, CamKII and GSK3beta are consistent with synaptic potentiation during wakefulness and depression during sleep. Furthermore, slope and amplitude of cortical evoked responses increase after wakefulness, decrease after sleep and correlate with changes in slow-wave activity, a marker of sleep pressure. Changes in molecular and electrophysiological indicators of synaptic strength are largely independent of the time of day. Finally, cortical long-term potentiation can be easily induced after sleep, but not after wakefulness. Thus, wakefulness appears to be associated with net synaptic potentiation, whereas sleep may favor global synaptic depression, thereby preserving an overall balance of synaptic strength.

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