How Sleep Impacts the Brain

26 October 2021
Writer Name

Can you guess what one sure-fire way to improve our memory and learning abilities is? If you guessed sleep, you are correct! Sleep is essential not only for our physical health, but also for our brain health. It appears to be a simple concept, but we haven't fully grasped it yet.

What we do know is that how much we sleep and the type of sleep we get changes as we age. Snoozing time for a child is much different than for a middle-aged adult and that’s due to the ratio of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to non-rapid eye movement (nREM) sleep. As we age, we typically spend more of our days awake and less time in REM sleep. Contrastingly, babies and children spend the majority of their days asleep, specifically in REM sleep. 

How REM Sleep Differs From Non-REM Sleep in Terms of Brain Impact

Several studies have found that REM sleep, particularly during early development, is essential for the formation of synapses. A synapse is a space where a neuron sends a signal to another neuron, a gland, or a muscle. In other words, REM sleep is vital for forming connections in the brain. Conversely, nREM sleep has been shown to be connected to brain development at later ages, specifically childhood onwards.

Memory & Learning

Have you ever heard of putting a child down for a nap immediately after they've learned something new? According to studies, sleep actually helps children consolidate, or store, new information. The same effect has been seen in adults as well!

One study on children in particular found that there was a sleep-dependent transfer of information from the hippocampus to the neocortex. This transfer that we see happening could be associated with the brain processing and consolidating newly learned information as memories. It’s no secret that children “learn faster” than adults, and this study offers an explanation as to why that may be: the information transfer appears to be happening faster in children than adults. 

Less Sleep Impacts Brain Function

Think about how you perform on a reduced amount of sleep, typically memory worsens and our brains are not able to function as well. Restricting the number of hours an individual, either a child or an adult,  normally sleeps in a day or in a week can lead to a reduction in memory consolidation. Additionally, it can lead to slower reaction times and less alertness

If students don’t get enough sleep, they may be less attentive, which can affect how much they are absorbing and understanding during class. Sleep restriction in children has been associated with ADHD-like behavior problems and cognitive symptoms, as well as reduced academic performance.

How It Happens

A portion of our brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC) regulates the amygdala's response to stimuli (anything that evokes a response). Sleep-deprived people have lower functional connectivity between the PFC and the amygdala, according to some studies, than those who get the recommended amount of sleep per night.

A study on sleep-deprived individuals revealed a 60% increase in amygdala activation and a much higher percentage of the amygdala becoming activated when exposed to negative stimuli. This suggests that when we are sleep-deprived, we may be less effective at regulating our emotional responses, especially towards negative expressions and experiences. Some studies even found that 5- to 18-year-old participants who did not get enough sleep had greater functional connectivity in areas of the brain associated with risk-taking and impulsivity; this may explain why sleep restriction in children has been associated with ADHD-like behavior problems.

Take Home Message 

Sleep should be a top priority for adults and children alike, but it is absolutely essential during the developmental stages of childhood. Take a look at our sleep tips below for inspiration!

  1. Tech-Free Time - about an hour to two hours before bedtime, put all digital devices away.

  2. Watch What You Eat - don’t go to sleep hungry or stuffed, every part of the body needs time to rest.

  3. Regular Physical Activity - exercise on a regular basis promotes better sleep.

  4. Set a Schedule - aim for at least 6-8 hours of sleep each night and create a schedule that works for you.

For more brain development tips, check out our brain activation page!


Learn more from these resources:

Understanding Sleep for Parents

For Kids - What Sleep Is and Why All Kids Need It

PBS - The Brain: Sleep: Why Do We Need It?


Dutil, C., Walsh, J. J., Featherstone, R. B., Gunnell, K. E., Tremblay, M. S., Gruber, R., Weiss, 

K., Cote, K. A., Sampson, M., & Chaput, J. (2018). Influence of sleep on developing brain functions and structures in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 42, 184-201.

Knoop, M. S., Groot, E. R., & Dudink, J. (2021). Current ideas about the roles of rapid eye 

movement and non–rapid eye movement sleep in brain development. Acta Paediatrica, 110(1), 36-44.

Molfese, D. L., Ivanenko, A., Key, A. F., Roman, A., Molfese, V. J., O'Brien, L. M., Gozal, D., 

Kota, S., & Hudac, C. M. (2013). A one-hour sleep restriction impacts brain processing in young children across tasks: Evidence from event-related potentials. Developmental Neuropsychology, 38(5), 317-336.

Urbain, C., De Tiège, X., Op De Beeck, M., Bourguignon, M., Wens, V., Verheulpen, D., Van 

Bogaert, P., & Peigneux, P. (2016). Sleep in children triggers rapid reorganization of memory-related brain processes. NeuroImage, 134, 213-222.

Yoo, S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F. A., & Walker, M. P. (2007). The human emotional brain 

without sleep — a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology, 17(20), R877-R878.

Sign up for our Newsletter

Keep up to date with the best brain-boosting news, stories, promotions and tips!
Still have Questions?
Contact Us FAQ