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Poor Sleep, Poor Memory

New Study at Freie Universität Berlin Shows Evidence of Relationship between Sleep and Memory Formation

№ 322/2012 from Oct 25, 2012

A study done at Freie Universität Berlin shows that sleep deprivation impairs the processing of experience in the brains of bees. Neurobiologists in Professor Randolf Menzel’s group were recently able to demonstrate this experimentally. With the help of tiny radar antennas, the researchers investigated the ability of bees to learn routes between new feeding sites and the beehive. Well-rested bees were able to find the direct way home after brief training, while sleep deprivation led to disorientation. The findings were published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

During their first flights out of the hive, bees learn to recognize the surrounding landscape. If they are moved to another location, as in the experiments done by scientists in Randolf Menzel's group, they are able to find their way back to the hive after some searching. They store the new route in their memory.

To track the bees' flight during the experiments, the researchers used tiny radar antennas glued to the backs of the bees. It was found that the insects could remember the way home after they had found it one time. However, when the scientists interrupted the sleep of the bees just after they had leaned a new direct route, the bees experienced disorientation during the second attempt to return. Fewer than half of the insects found their way back, and it took them twice as long as the insects with the usual amount of sleep. "Without sleep the bees are not able to consolidate the memory of the previous experiences with the new experience. Formation of the new memory is only possible during sleep," said Menzel.

Sleep helps animals, including humans, to store new experiences in such a way that earlier memories can be altered and supplemented. Since it is not possible to analyze the individual processes in complex brains such as those of humans at the level of the involved nerve cells, neurobiologist Randolf Menzel has been working with honeybees for more than four decades. Their nervous system shares many properties with the nervous system of humans and other larger animals. Knowledge of the neural processes in honeybees will contribute to a better understanding of memory formation in humans.

Further Information

Prof. Dr. Randolf Menzel, Institute of Biology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 838-53930, Email: