Scientific study: Sleep makes children smarter

A research project has been launched to study for the first time whether children perform better at school when they sleep longer and more soundly. Children in primary school will participate in a special training to improve their sleep behaviour. Experts will then examine how this affects the children's performance at school. This study - which is supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) - will not only provide valuable scientific insight into sleeping behaviour, but will also evaluate sleep improvement techniques that can be taught to all children with the aim of improving their performance at school.

Sleeping is a question of practice: Neurofeedback-Training should help children to sleep more soundly. If this improves their memory capacity, is the subject of research by a team supported by the FWF. © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Georg Bruckschlögl

We know that sleep is essential for survival, but we do not yet know for sure which particular functions sleep performs in living things. It has been proven, however, that sleep deprivation and sleep disorders can lead to various psychological and physical problems, whereas improving sleep quality has a positive effect on people.

In a current study, Dr. Kerstin Hoedlmoser and Dr. Manuel Schabus from the Department of Psychology at the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg are investigating whether sleeping longer and more soundly improves the memory capacity of schoolchildren and helps boosting their performance. The research project focuses on 60 children aged between eight and eleven. It aims not only to examine their sleep behaviour but also to improve it with special training methods.

Learning how to sleep
The study seeks to have a positive impact on the duration and quality of the children's sleep by teaching them different methods. To this end, the participants are divided randomly into two groups. Dr. Hoedlmoser explains: "One group of the children receives a standard sleep education program. In this group, playful interventions are used to teach the children sleep hygiene rules and relaxation techniques to improve their sleep quality. The other group takes part in a neurofeedback training where the children voluntarily learn to control their neuronal activity." During the neurofeedback training, brain-signals are measured using sensors and evaluated simultaneously by a computer program. The computer promptly provides positive feedback when the brain's activity is in the ideal frequency range for rest and relaxation. Based on this positive feedback, the participants learn to control the activities of their brain on demand. This strategy is designed to help the children to relax during the onset of sleep and to fall asleep more easily. Both methods should enhance the duration and quality of their sleep.

Every child will complete various tests at the beginning and end of the study to evaluate memory, concentration and performance at school. This will provide the researchers with an insight into the relationship between sleep and cognitive performance. Dr. Hoedlmoser obtained clear results with a similar study conducted with adult participants: "We showed that neurofeedback training improves the sleep behaviour of adults. Subjects were able to fall asleep faster and were also far more successful in recalling word pairs." The presented study is now seeking to determine whether similar results can be achieved within schoolchildren.

Sleep problems among children
The current research project offers an interesting approach because not only adults suffer from sleep problems. As Dr. Hoedlmoser has proven in another study involving 330 children from primary schools, sleep problems are already widespread among eight to eleven-year-olds: "Many children show a sleep onset delay or report difficulties waking up in the morning. Others refuse going to bed, or their restless legs prevent them from finding restorative sleep. Furthermore, children who watch television or play computer games before going to bed are complaining more often about nightmares."

Because of the high relevance of sleep problems among young children, this FWF-supported project focuses on this particular age group. The study is interested in gaining a scientific insight into sleep behaviours among children and additionally investigating preventive techniques for sleep problems. It is for these reasons that the findings of the study will be published and made available to the general public once it has been concluded.

Scientific contact
Dr. Kerstin Hoedlmoser
Paris Lodron University
Department of Psychology
Hellbrunnerstrasse 34,
5020 Salzburg
Austria
T +43 / 662 / 8044 - 5143
M +43 / 650 / 59 83 523
kerstin.hoedlmoser(at)sbg.ac.at

Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt

Editor/publisher
PR&D - Public Relations für Forschung & Bildung
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
1030 Vienna
Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44
contact(at)prd.at
www.prd.at

Vienna, 22 February 2010