Monday, May 17, 2010

Infant study: Sleeping babies capable of learning

A study released today reveals infants are capable of making real-world associations while they’re deep in dreamland.

Researchers at Columbia University repeatedly played a tone while blowing a puff of air into 26 sleeping infants’ eyelids. Each time the babies would scrunch their faces in response.

Eventually the puffs of air stopped, and the tone continued. A video camera that recorded their facial expressions shows almost a Pavlovian response. Nearly all of the infants scrunched their faces as if they were bracing for another air burst.

Electroencephalogram readings show there were fluctuations in brain wave activity with each tone. The authors of the study believe this is evidence that the infants learned to associate the tone and air puffs.

Babies who were not exposed to the air bursts had no reaction to the tones.

This type of learning is controlled by the cerebellum, the section of the brain that connects sensory input and muscular response.

Because of the limitation of the study scientists still don’t know if adults are able to make the same type of associations in their sleep.

In April, we learned that dreams can help the adult brain learn complex tasks, like navigating a 3-D maze. You can read the entire article here at the Sleepeducation blog.

On a side note, the authors say the techniques they used in the sleeping infant study may lead to the discovery of a test for certain developmental disorders. The non-invasive test would hopefully identify infants who are at risk for developmental disorders don’t show up until later in life.
Image by Badruddeen

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