Sleep preferentially enhances memory for a cognitive strategy but not the implicit motor skills used to acquire it
Neurobiology of Learning and Memory
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Sleep is known to be beneficial to the strengthening of two distinct forms of procedural memory: memory for novel, cognitively simple series of motor movements, and memory for novel, cognitively complex strategies required to solve problems. However, these two types of memory are intertwined, since learning a new cognitive procedural strategy occurs through practice, and thereby also requires the execution of a series of simple motor movements. As a result, it is unclear whether the benefit of sleep results from the enhancement of the cognitive strategy, or the motor skills required to execute the solution. To disentangle the role of sleep in these aspects of procedural memory, we employed two tasks: (1) the Tower of Hanoi (ToH), and, (2) a modified version of the ToH, akin to an implicit Motor Sequence Learning (MSL) task. The MSL task involved the identical series of motor movements as the ToH, but without access to the information necessary to execute the task according to the underlying cognitive procedural strategy. Participants (n = 28) were trained on the 3-disk ToH, then retested on 5-disk versions of both ToH and MSL tasks. Half (n = 15) were trained and immediately tested at 8 PM and retested at 8 AM after a night of sleep. They were retested again at 8 PM after a day of wake (PM-AM-PM condition). The other half (n = 13) were trained and immediately tested at 8 AM, retested at 8 PM after a day of wake, and retested again at 8 AM after a night of sleep (AM-PM-AM condition). ToH performance only improved following a period of sleep. There was no benefit of sleep to implicit MSL. Our results show that sleep, but not wake, allowed individuals to extrapolate what was learned on a simpler 3-disk version of the task to the larger 5-disk problem, which included new elements to which they had not yet been exposed. Here, we isolate the specific role sleep plays for cognitive procedural memory: sleep benefits the cognitive strategy, rather than strengthening implicitly acquired motor sequences required to learn and execute the underlying strategy itself.