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The strength of the connections between the left and right sides of a child's brain can increase as much as 20% during a full night's sleep, a new study tells us.

Holly, a new kindergarten teacher, was puzzled by the behavior of some of her students.

Sam, a precocious 5-year-old, could already add and subtract and spell two-syllable words, but he hated coloring and projects with construction paper.

Polly, an equally bright 5-year-old, could draw surprisingly realistic pictures of pets and people, but whenever there was activity that involved counting she would tell Holly, the teacher, that her stomach hurt.

What could explain the differences between children like Polly and Sam? Did Sam like math because he was a boy and Polly prefer art because she was a girl? Or did they have different talents and limitations? Or maybe there was another solution.

Left-Brain, Right-Brain, Whole-Brain

Every teacher knows that different students have different learning styles. Some children learn by listening to words, and some children learn by looking at pictures. Some children prefer talking, and others prefer physical activity.

Teachers are taught to recognize left-brain (analytic) and right-brain (artistic) tendencies in their students and in themselves, but more and more teachers and parents are becoming aware that children are also capable of "whole-brain" activities, in which they use both their analytical and artistic skills to accomplish a task or just to have fun. But for children (and teachers) to use their whole brains, the two sides of the brain have to be linked. This linkage, it turns out, is a process that the brain accomplishes during sleep.

The Brain Wires Itself During Sleep

A new study in the medical journal Brain Sciences reports that some strands of myelin, the "insulation" that helps neurons in the brain make new connections without "short circuits," grows as much as 20% faster in young children's brains while they sleep. Scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder gave sleep encephalograms to children aged 2, 3, and 5. They found that the myelin coating of neurons forming connections between the left and right sides of the brain, which are important to both impulse control and creativity, were mostly formed during sleep. They found that myelin in the individual sides of the brain actually deteriorated during sleep, so the thought processes became less left-brain or right-brain but more whole-brain when children were fully rested at night.

University of Colorado researcher Dr. Salome Kurth says that the genes that code the proteins used to make myelin are switched on during sleep, while genes that initiate an "auto destruct" sequence in some tissues in the brain are activated by missing sleep. The older children get, the stronger the connections need to be, and the more noticeable the effects of sleep deprivation. 

By the time children reach the later elementary and middle school grades 4, 5, and 6 (usually age ages 9 to 11), sleep encephalograms can even predict their scores on tests that measure working memory (the ability to keep facts in mind long enough to solve problems) and scores on general intelligence tests. To a certain extent, we all inherit our ability to sleep well, or not, but there is a lot parents can do to ensure that their children get the sleep they need to develop intellectual abilities that will serve them all their lives.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Geiger A, Huber R, Kurth S, Ringli M, Achermann P, Jenni OG. Sleep electroencephalography topography and children's intellectual ability. Neuroreport. 2012 Jan 25., 23(2):93-7. doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32834e7e8f.
  • Geiger A, Huber R, Kurth S, Ringli M, Jenni OG, Achermann P. The sleep EEG as a marker of intellectual ability in school age children.Sleep. 2011 Feb 1,34(2):181-9. PMID: 21286251.
  • Photo courtesy of Raúl A.- by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/torrelodones/3141253842/
  • Photo courtesy of David K by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/plasticrevolver/76101185/

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