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 In Autism, Blog, Memory, Sleep

Sleep plays a critical role in memory, but what happens when people are not able to sleep well? A significant percentage of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have sleep problems, struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. In a recent study, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital investigated how sleep impacts memory consolidation for children with ASD. The findings demonstrate that different aspects of sleep affect memory in children with ASD than in typically developing children.

For the study, 22 children with ASD and 20 age-matched controls completed two versions of a declarative memory task. The children played a card-matching game both before a night of sleep and before a waking period. The researchers then tested their memory after sleep or in the evening, respectively. During sleep, the researchers measured the children’s brainwaves with polysomnograms, which the children used at home while sleeping on their normal schedule.

Memory consolidation was linked to different sleep measures for the children with ASD than the controls. Children with ASD forgot around 30 percent of what they learned before a waking period, but only forgot about half as much during a sleep period. In contrast, the controls forgot about 12 percent of what they learned before a waking period. Their memory performance improved by 5 percent after sleeping. The researchers were surprised to find that both groups benefited from sleep because children with ASD had poorer sleep efficiency than children in the control group.

“In the controls, the amount of sleep was positively correlated with memory consolidation,” stated Kiran Maski, M.D., sleep specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital. However, another, deeper type of sleep was correlated with memory consolidation with children with ASD. “This suggests that sleep duration is more important for memory consolidation in those with typical development, but the quality of sleep may be more important for the children with autism.”

The results indicate that improving sleep quality for children with ASD could improve memory and overall cognitive functioning.

This research is published in the journal Sleep.

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