The Relative Impact of Sleep and Circadian Drive on Motor Skill Acquisition and Memory Consolidation

Sleep. 2017 Apr 1;40(4):zsx036. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsx036.


Study objectives: Sleep during the biological night facilitates memory consolidation. Here we determined the impact of sleep and wake on motor skill learning (acquisition) and subsequent off-line skill improvement (memory consolidation), independent of circadian phase, and compared this to the impact of the endogenous circadian system, independent of whether sleep occurred during the biological night or day.

Methods: Participants completed two 8-day sleep laboratory visits, adhering on one visit to a circadian aligned ("normal") sleep schedule for the full duration of the protocol, and on the other to a circadian misaligned (12-hour inverted) schedule, with alignment during the first 3 days, a 12-hour 'slam shift' on Day 4, followed by circadian misalignment during the last 4 days of the protocol. Participants were repeatedly trained and tested on different versions of the finger-tapping motor sequence task across each visit.

Results: Sleep facilitated offline memory consolidation regardless of whether it occurred during the biological day or night, while circadian phase had no significant impact. These sleep-related benefits remained after accounting for general motor speed, measured in the absence of learning. In addition, motor skill acquisition was facilitated when the training session followed shortly after sleep, without significant impact of circadian phase (biological morning vs. evening). This effect was largely driven by heightened acquisition in participants who slept during the day and were trained shortly thereafter, that is, when acquisition occurred during the biological evening. These benefits were also retained after controlling for general motor speed.

Conclusions: Sleep benefits both the acquisition and consolidation of motor skill regardless of whether they occur during the biological day or night. After controlling for general motor speed, a critical adjustment that few studies perform, these sleep benefits remain intact. Our findings have clear implications for night shift workers who obtain their sleep during the day.

Keywords: Acquisition; Circadian; Consolidation.; Memory; Motor Skill; Sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory Consolidation / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Shift Work Schedule
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult