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How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Memory?

Sleep is an important step in the process of regenerating cells and improving daytime function. You hear the importance of things like getting enough sleep, and getting restful sleep, but what happens to your brain when you aren’t getting enough? Getting enough rest allows the brain to process all the events of the day, and so sleep (or lack thereof) can affect memory.

Sleep can be divided into two categories, which are NREM and REM sleep. We alternate between the two, where we are in deep sleep during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and we are sleeping lightly in NREM (non-REM) sleep. REM sleep is where we dream, and it is also where our mind and body recuperate from the day. This stage is the stage that we are trying to aim for when we sleep!

The most common symptom of sleep deprivation is the inability to remember things. This is because “the brain does not have sufficient time to create new pathways for the information you’ve recently learned” [1], and so the brain cannot properly store these memories either. Most studies are particularly about the role of sleep after learning new information, but there is also evidence that sleep plays an important role before learning too. Sleep deprivation can also make it harder to learn and retain, due to sleep deprivation symptoms such as grogginess and the inability to focus.

The average adult (18-64 years old) should be getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep [1]. For some, this may not be possible with the development of sleep disorders. This can include insomnia or sleep apnea. Insomnia (having difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep) can cause “daytime cognitive impairments including reduced memory functioning” [1]. Sleep apnea can promote memory loss.


1. Rehman, D. A., & Pacheco, D. (2023, February 8). Memory & Sleep: How deprivation affects the brain. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from

2. Casey, S. J., Solomons, L. C., Steier, J., Kabra, N., Burnside, A., Pengo, M. F., ... & Kopelman, M. D. (2016). Slow wave and REM sleep deprivation effects on explicit and implicit memory during sleep. Neuropsychology, 30(8), 931. Retrieved from

3. Havekes, R., & Abel, T. (2017). The tired hippocampus: the molecular impact of sleep deprivation on hippocampal function. Current opinion in neurobiology, 44, 13-19. Retrieved from

4. Krause, A. J., Simon, E. B., Mander, B. A., Greer, S. M., Saletin, J. M., Goldstein-Piekarski, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2017). The sleep-deprived human brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(7), 404-418. Retrieved from



Author: Kayjah Taylor

Editor: Chadwick Huynh

Health scientist: Abdullah Alharbi


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