University of FloridaHow newborns appear to pick information and details around so quickly certainly has scientists don their thinking caps. It now comes to light newborn infants may be learning while asleep. A new study by experts at the University of Florida reveals that sleeping newborns are better learners than thought. It suggests to probable disability tests later.

Claimed to be the first study of its type, this new analysis may have the potential to recognize those who could be at risk for developmental disorders. This includes autism and dyslexia.

“We found a basic form of learning in sleeping newborns, a type of learning that may not be seen in sleeping adults,” says Dana Byrd, a research affiliate in psychology at UF who collaborated with a team of scientists.

It appears to give important information on how newborns may have the ability to learn so quickly from the world even when they sleep for 16 to 18 hours a day. Byrd shares that sleeping newborns seem to be better learners, and better ‘data sponges’ than assumes. To better understand this Byrd and her colleagues tested the learning abilities of sleeping newborns. For this they repeated tones that were followed by a gentle puff of air to the eyelids. When the tone was sounded minus the puff of air, after about 20 minutes, 24 of the 26 babies squeezed their eyelids together.

“This methodology opens up research areas into potentially detecting high risk populations, those who show abnormalities in the neural systems underlying this form of learning,” she adds. “These would include siblings of individuals with autism and siblings of those with dyslexia.”

The results of this experiment were ascertained by comparing the 1- or 2-day-old infants with a control group using EEG and video recordings. It was found that the brain waves of the 24 infants altered, offering a neural measurement of memory updating. The study further revealed that not only did the newborns show they could learn to give this reflex in response to the simple tone, but they also gave the response at the right time.

“While past studies find this type of learning can occur in infants who are awake, this is the first study to document it in their most frequent state, while they are asleep,” Byrd mentioned. “Since newborns sleep so much of the time, it is important that they not only take in information but use the information in such a way to respond appropriately.”

According to her, learned eyelid movement seems to reflect the normal functioning of the circuitry in the cerebellum which is a neural structure at the base of the brain. A distinct non-invasive tool for early identification of infants with atypical cerebellar structure seems to be provided by the study’s method. This could help identify who are potentially at risk for a range of developmental disorders, including autism and dyslexia.

“Newborn infants’ sleep patterns are quite different than those of older children or adults in that they show more active sleep where heart and breathing rates are very changeable,” she said. “It may be this sleep state is more amenable to experiencing the world in a way that facilitates learning.”

Seemingly the potential of infants to learn in the course of sleep contrasts with the stance of certain experts that learning new content may not occur in sleeping adults. Mainly the immature nature of sleep patterns in infants could be help understand why.

The team’s paper is published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences