You’ve probably heard of people learning different languages in their sleep by listening to an mp3 of recorded phrases and words, but did you know that babies can also learn while they are asleep? A new study has shown that infants can learn to do certain responses when prompted by a specific tone, and this action is learned while the infant is fast asleep. Researchers believe that this information can be used in the future to test for developmental disabilities.  

The study, conducted by Dr. William Fifer and his colleges at the Columbia University in New York, involved 26 infants. While they were asleep researchers would play a tone and then a machine would send a puff of air into the infant’s face, causing them to clench their eyelids tightly. This was repeated for nine times and on the tenth time, only the tone was played. This sequence was repeated for about 20 minutes and after that time the infants reacted consistently to the tone without the accompanying puff of air. 24 out of 26 infants successfully learned in their sleep to identify the face scrunching motion with the tone.

During the study, the infants were also hooked up to an electroencephalogram that recorded their brain’s electrical activity. By the end of the 20 minutes, the electroencephalogram reported changes in brain wave activity that occurred simultaneously with the tone. The research team believes that this suggests the infants were able to associate the tone with the puff of air while they were sleeping.
"The current experiment is the first to demonstrate that newborn infants are capable of learning about relationships between stimuli while asleep," the researchers wrote. "Learning was only demonstrated in infants exposed to consistent pairings of the tone and air puff."
 
The research team also observed that this type of learning is controlled by the part of the brain called the cerebellum which is the site where many developmental delays occur. The non-invasive measures used in the study could later be used to screen for developmental disorders much earlier than usual. Since early intervention provides children with more opportunities for treatment, this is a huge find and could potentially be quite useful in the future.

The research team focuses solely on newborns for this study and concluded that the same type of learning may or may not be possible for older children and adults. The ability to perform the same types of tests may wear off with age, says Fifer.

Source: NIH News. Infants capable of learning while asleep. National Institutes of Health (NIH). 2010, May 17.