Masako Tamaki, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, presented the first physical evidence of how sleep enhances the learning of a motor skill in the Aug. 21, 2013, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
The enhancement of learning motor skills while sleeping has been known for decades but the exact mechanisms have never before been elucidated nor has the exact brain areas involved been identified.
Fifteen volunteer participants attempted to learn a series of finger movements similar to typing or playing the piano using the hand opposite to what they normally would use in a manual task. The participants then slept. The test subjects then performed the same task again.
Each part of the trial was monitored by magnetoencephalography that measures the timing of brain wave oscillations, polysomnography that tracks the sleep phase, and with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The majority of the test subjects performed better on the manual test after sleep.
Changes in fast-sigma and delta brain wave oscillations in the supplementary motor area (SMA), a region on the top mid section of the brain, were seen in those participants that slept and then performed the manual test more efficiently.
The researchers conclude that sufficient sleep is necessary for learning a manual skill. This conclusion would indicate sports performance is enhanced by sleep.