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Sleep-dependent consolidation of procedural motor memories in children and adults: the pre-sleep level of performance matters

Authors


Ines Wilhelm, Department of Neuroendocrinology, University of Lübeck, Ratzeburger Allee 160, Haus 50.1, 23538 Lübeck, Germany; e-mail: wilhelm@kfg.uni-luebeck.de

Abstract

In striking contrast to adults, in children sleep following training a motor task did not induce the expected (offline) gain in motor skill performance in previous studies. Children normally perform at distinctly lower levels than adults. Moreover, evidence in adults suggests that sleep dependent offline gains in skill essentially depend on the pre-sleep level of performance. Against this background, we asked whether improving children’s performance on a motor sequence learning task by extended training to levels approaching those of adults would enable sleep-associated gains in motor skill in this age group also. Children (4–6 years) and adults (18–35 years) performed on the motor sequence learning task (button-box task) before and after ∼2-hour retention intervals including either sleep (midday nap) or wakefulness. Whereas one group of children and adults, respectively, received the standard amount of 10 blocks of training before retention intervals of sleep or wakefulness, a further group of children received an extended training on 30 blocks (distributed across 3 days). A further group of adults received a restricted training on only two blocks before the retention intervals. Children after standard training reached lowest performance levels, whereas in adults performance after standard training was highest. Children with extended training and adults after reduced training reached intermediate performance levels. Only at these intermediate performance levels did sleep induce significant gains in motor sequence skill, whereas performance did not benefit from sleep in the low-performing children or in the high-performing adults. Spindle counts in the post-training nap were correlated with performance gains at retrieval only in the adults benefitting from sleep. We conclude that, across age groups, sleep induces the most robust gain in motor skill at an intermediate pre-sleep performance level. In low-performing children sleep-dependent improvements in skill may be revealed only after enhancing the pre-sleep performance level by extended training.

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