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Learn Mem. 2003 Jul-Aug;10(4):275-84.

Sleep and the time course of motor skill learning.

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  • 1Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA. mwalker@hms.harvard.edu


Growing evidence suggests that sleep plays an important role in the process of procedural learning. Most recently, sleep has been implicated in the continued development of motor-skill learning following initial acquisition. However, the temporal evolution of motor learning before and after sleep, the effects of different training regimens, and the long-term development of motor learning across multiple nights of sleep remain unknown. Here, we report data for subjects trained and retested on a sequential finger-tapping task across multiple days. The findings demonstrate firstly that following initial training, small practice-dependent improvements are possible before, but not following the large practice-independent gains that develop across a night of sleep. Secondly, doubling the quantity of initial training does not alter the amount of subsequent sleep-dependent learning that develops overnight. Thirdly, the amount of sleep-dependent learning does not correlate with the amount of practice-dependent learning achieved during training, suggesting the existence of two discrete motor-learning processes. Finally, whereas the majority of sleep-dependent motor-skill learning develops during the first night of sleep following training, additional nights of sleep still offer continued improvements.

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