How Sleep Helps Johnny Manziel

By Dan Peterson

Last month, Johnny Manziel, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Texas A&M, made news when he was asked to leave the Manning Passing Academy after he missed a morning meeting and practice.  In his role as a coach/counselor to the future QBs at the camp, he was helping teach the fundamental movements and technique of the position.  His reason for his absence? “I just overslept”.  While some in the media have suggested other reasons for his “tiredness”, new research reveals that all that sleep may have actually helped him improve his own motor skills for the new season.

Johnny Manziel

Researchers have known for awhile that we all need sleep, not only for rejuvenation, but also to help us consolidate and organize new information and allow the day’s learning to solidify in our brains.  This is especially true for motor tasks, including everything from playing a complicated piano piece to riding a bike to throwing a tight spiral twenty yards down field.

The mystery was how and where in the brain these memories form.  “The mechanisms of memory consolidations regarding motor memory learning were still uncertain until now,” said Masako Tamaki, a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at Brown University. “We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness. We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep.”

While everyone has heard of the dream-filled state of sleep known as rapid eye movement or REM, it is actually during an even deeper phase known as “slow-wave” sleep when our motor learning skills take root.  Previous studies of the sleeping brain found EEG activity near the primary motor cortex on the top-middle of our brain but when scientists blocked those waves with electromagnetic interference, the learning still took place.

Tamaki and his team designed a new experiment to zero in on the exact epicenter of skill development.  They asked 15 volunteers to participate by learning a complicated keyboard sequence similar to learning a new piano passage.  For the first three nights, the volunteers just slept in the lab so the research team could get baseline measurements of their brain activity while they were awake, then asleep.

Next, nine of the volunteers were taught the keyboard sequence then allowed to go to sleep for 3 hours.  Their brain activity was captured with with magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measures the brain’s oscillations with precise timing, and polysomnography (PSG), which keeps track of sleep phase. Then, they were awakened and asked to perform the keyboard skill again one hour later.

The other six volunteers also learned the task but were not allowed to sleep.  They were also asked to perform the task 4 hours after first learning it.

As expected, those that were able to sleep showed significantly better performance on the new motor skill than those that were kept awake.

“It’s an intensive activity for the brain to consolidate learning and so the brain may benefit from sleep perhaps because more energy is available or because distractions and new inputs are fewer,” said Tamaki.

The research was published in the August 21 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

But what surprised the researchers the most was where they saw these learning “spindles” of activity in the brain.  They expected memory consolidation to be in the primary motor cortex but instead they found it in the supplementary motor area (SMA), a small area near the cortex. Through the brain wave oscillations of slow-wave sleep, the neuron connections in the SMA are multiplied and interwoven forming the new skill memory.

Bottom line for developing athletes: “Sleep is not just a waste of time,” according to Yuka Sasaki, research associate professor at Brown.  Just ask Johnny Football.

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