New Study Shows Need for REM Sleep in Children

rem sleepSleep is an incredibly important part of our lives, and numerous studies have gone into detail about just how important it is. A recent study shows exactly how important REM sleep is for children.

REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep converts our daily experiences into our lasting memories and abilities. A recent study from Washington State University in Spokane says this is even more important for young people’s brains.

The study, which was published in Science Advances and funded by the National Institutes of Health, went into detail about how REM affects kids’ brains.

Essentially what they found was that in order for experiences to go into long term memory, REM sleep is necessary. It basically makes things stick. Marcos Frank, a professor of medical sciences, says the researchers have long known that infants of animals spend much of their young lives in REM, and we should be too.

“REM sleep acts like the chemical developer in old-fashioned photography to make traces of experience more permanent and focused in the brain,” Frank says. “Experience is fragile. These traces tend to vanish without REM sleep and the brain basically forgets what it saw.”

Younger people’s brains have essential periods of plasticity as they develop vision, speech, language, motor skills, social skills, and other higher cognitive functions. During childhood, REM helps foster the connections in a child’s brain for the information they’re learning. Referring to a study on vision, Frank offered the following:

“The visual cortex is very sensitive to information it is receiving and there are critical periods for its development,” he says. “If vision is blocked at these stages, then problems result.”

“Without REM sleep, permanent plastic changes to the visual cortex did not occur and the ERK enzyme did not activate,” Frank says. “It’s as if the neurons were dreaming of their waking experience,” he says. “This is the first time these similar events have been reported to occur in the developing brain during REM sleep,” Frank says. “Up till now, there has not been strong evidence to show that waking experience reappears during REM sleep.”

So the implications on children’s sleep? They need more REM sleep to develop at a good pace. The study’s authors say there is plenty evidence out there already stating that a child’s amount of sleep impacts their performance in school. 

The researchers also say their study is another piece to the puzzle of why it’s dangerous to limit sleep in kids. Their brains are changing rapidly as they grow, making this an incredibly important time for shut eye.

“Also, it is becoming more common for pediatricians to give compounds that affect brain activity earlier in life — not just Ritalin for attention deficit disorder, but also antidepressants and other drugs,” the research team wrote. “The fact is, we have very little pre-clinical research data to tell us what these drugs are doing to developing brains in both the short and long term. Almost all of these compounds can potentially suppress sleep and REM sleep in particular. REM sleep is very fragile—it can be inhibited by drugs very easily.”

Poor sleep in childhood could lead to the same in adulthood, with issues like sleep apnea, where 60 apneas or obstructions occur per hour. To put it simply: go to bed.


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