Mental rest and reflection boost learning, study suggests.

A new study, which may have implications for approaches to education, finds that brain mechanisms engaged when people allow their minds to rest and reflect on things they’ve learned before may boost later learning.
The patterns of brain activity recorded in this fMRI scanner revealed how mental rest and reflection on past learning activities can boost future learning.

A new study, which may have implications for approaches to education, finds that brain mechanisms engaged when people allow their minds to rest and reflect on things they’ve learned before, may boost later learning.Scientists have already established that resting the mind, as in daydreaming, helps strengthen memories of events and retention of information. In a new twist, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have shown that the right kind of mental rest, which strengthens and consolidates memories from recent learning tasks, helps boost future learning.

The results appear online this week in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Margaret Schlichting, a graduate student researcher, and Alison Preston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, gave participants in the study two learning tasks in which participants were asked to memorize different series of associated photo pairs. Between the tasks, participants rested and could think about anything they chose, but brain scans found that the ones who used that time to reflect on what they had learned earlier in the day fared better on tests pertaining to what they learned later, especially where small threads of information between the two tasks overlapped. Participants seemed to be making connections that helped them absorb information later on, even if it was only loosely related to something they learned before.

“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning,” says Preston. “We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.

Until now, many scientists assumed that prior memories are more likely to interfere with new learning. This new study shows that at least in some situations, the opposite is true.

“Nothing happens in isolation,” says Preston. “When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”

Preston described how this new understanding might help teachers design more effective ways of teaching. Imagine a college professor is teaching students about how neurons communicate in the human brain, a process that shares some common features with an electric power grid. The professor might first cue the students to remember things they learned in a high school physics class about how electricity is conducted by wires.

“A professor might first get them thinking about the properties of electricity,” says Preston. “Not necessarily in lecture form, but by asking questions to get students to recall what they already know. Then, the professor might begin the lecture on neuronal communication. By prompting them beforehand, the professor might help them reactivate relevant knowledge and make the new material more digestible for them.”

This research was conducted with adult participants. The researchers will next study whether a similar dynamic is at work with children.

This work was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the NSF CAREER Award and the Department of Defense through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Texas at Austin.Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. M. L. Schlichting, A. R. Preston. Memory reactivation during rest supports upcoming learning of related content. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404396111

A cell transplant has enabled a paralysed man to walk again

A man who was told he would never walk again has recovered sensation and movement in his legs after receiving a revolutionary cell transplant.


Darek Fidyka had been paralysed for almost two years following a knife attack, and despite intensive physiotherapy, he showed no sign of recovery. Following the transplant, he began to regain feeling in his legs. He steadily continued on the road to recovery, and two years after the operation, he can now walk again with the aid of a frame.

The transplant was a world-first collaboration effort by surgeons at the Wroclaw University Hospital in Poland and scientists at University College London’s Institute of Neurology in the UK, and the findings are published in the journal Cell Transplantation

The cells that were used to achieve this miracle were taken from Fidyka’s olfactory bulb, the structure that gives us our sense of smell. These nerve cells are continually damaged due to the different odours we smell and must be replaced regularly, which means the olfactory bulb is a very rich source of olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) – specialist cells that form part of the sense of smell.

OECs provide the pathway for the damaged fibres in our nose to grow back, enabling nerve cells to regenerate themselves throughout our lifetime. The team used this unique regeneration quality to repair Fidyka’s damaged spinal column cells.

Using these cells for the transplant meant there was no danger of rejection, and eliminated the need for immunosuppressive drugs that are typically used in transplants.

Professor Geoffrey Raisman, a spinal cord injury specialist at University College London’s Institute of Neurology, who led the research, told Cahal Milmo from The Independent, “I believe this is the first time that a patient has been able to regenerate severed long spinal nerve fibres across an injury and resume movement and feeling”.

The technique involved first removing one of Fidyka’s olfactory bulbs, and culturing it in the laboratory to generate about 500,000 OECs. The OECs were then transplanted into the damaged area in his spinal cord. His incredible recovery suggests that the OECs provided a pathway for the fibres around the injury to rejoin, by creating a “nerve bridge” between the damaged ends of the spinal cord. This regeneration reopened communication pathways between his brain controlling muscles and his lower body.

“What the procedure does is provide a bridge that enables cut nerve fibres to grow across a gap. The cells open up a door on either side of the broken tissue and create a pathway for the nerves to follow,” Raisman told Richard Hartley-Parkinson from Metro.

The team plans to assess the technique in more patients over the next few years, and hopes that it could be a future treatment for patients with spinal cord injuries.