- Researchers claim that the zolpidem in some sleeping pills enhances the brain’s ability to build-up memories
- They say the findings could help in the development of treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia
- Contradicts previous research which found the drug may actually CAUSE memory loss
Taking sleeping tablets could help improve your memory, according to controversial new research.
A team of researchers claim to have discovered the mechanism that enables the brain to build-up memories – and say they found that a commonly prescribed sleeping tablet containing zolpidem enhances this process.
They hope the discovery could lead to new sleep therapies that could improve memory for ageing adults and those with dementia, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.
The findings contradict a wealth of previous research that has suggested that sleeping pills can have devastating effects on health, including memory.
The new research claims to have demonstrated, for the first time, the critical role that sleep spindles play in consolidating memory in the hippocampus.
Sleep spindles are bursts of brain activity that last for a second or less during sleep.
Earlier research found a link between sleep spindles and the consolidation of memories that depend on the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is involved in memory forming, organising, and storing.
The research team say they showed that the drugs could significantly improve that process, far more than sleep alone.
‘This is the first study to show you can manipulate sleep to improve memory.
‘It suggests sleep drugs could be a powerful tool to tailor sleep to particular memory disorders.’
But previous research has suggested that sleeping pills taken by more than a million Britons significantly increase the risk of dementia.
Pensioners who used benzodiazepines – which include temazepam and diazepam – are 50 per cent more likely to succumb to the devastating illness, a Harvard University study found.
They work by changing the way messages are transmitted to the brain, which induces a calming effect but scientists believe that at the same time they may be interfering with chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters, which may be causing dementia.
The new study tested normal sleepers, who were given varying doses of sleeping pills and placebos, allowing several days between doses to allow the drugs to leave their bodies.
Researchers monitored their sleep, measured sleepiness and mood after napping, and used several tests to evaluate their memory.
They found that zolpidem significantly increased the density of sleep spindles and improved verbal memory consolidation.
Dr Mednick said: ‘Zolpidem enhanced sleep spindles in healthy adults producing exceptional memory performance beyond that seen with sleep alone or sleep with the comparison drug.
‘The results set the stage for targeted treatment of memory impairments as well as the possibility of exceptional memory improvement above that of a normal sleep period.’
Dr Mednick also hopes to study the impact of zolpidem on older adults who experience poor memory because individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia and schizophrenia are known experience decreases in sleep spindles.
Dr Mednick, who began studying sleep in the early 2000s, says sleep is a very new field of research and its importance is generally not taught in medical schools.
‘We know very little about it,’ she said.
‘We do know that it affects behaviour, and we know that sleep is integral to a lot of disorders with memory problems.
‘We need to integrate sleep into medical diagnoses and treatment strategies. This research opens up a lot of possibilities.’