Wamsley awarded NSF grant to study impact of wakeful rest on memory
If you ever find yourself randomly drifting off to la-la land when you should be riveted to a meeting, professor, presentation or other speaker, it’s OK. In fact, it might even be necessary for building long-term memory.
That’s what Erin Wamsley and a cadre of Furman University undergraduates and other area students will be studying with the help of a three-year, $562,000 NSF RUI grant based on Wamsley’s proposal “RUI: Mechanisms of Memory Consolidation in Offline Wakefulness.”
In her abstract, Wamsley, an associate professor of psychology, explains that new memories are delicate and need to be fortified and reorganized, or consolidated, so they last. Sleep contributes mightily to the formation of memory, but Wamsley will focus on the seconds-long moments when we zone out, relax and rest.
“Rest is not a waste of time,” she said. “Instead, that’s an important time when our recent memories are processed by being replayed and strengthened in the brain. So, we’re trying to describe and understand that process and how it’s different from sleep.”
The grant will fund the study and the high-level work that takes place in the Furman Sleep Laboratory. Already, the lab has provided research training for 45 undergraduates over eight years, which has led to published manuscripts, and numerous students have gone on to graduate school and professions in research and computer science.
In addition to supporting the study, the lab and its full-time coordinator, the grant will make it possible for about nine students to work on the research over three years. Each year of the grant, Wamsley will include at least one local high school student or an undergraduate from a minority-serving college, a practice she has followed in previous NSF and NIH awards, which now top $1.1 million, plus several hundred thousand dollars in indirect funds.
Wamsley said she’s interested in how the research might inform conditions like ADHD and maybe even Alzheimer’s, but for now, the project’s goal is to better understand the brain mechanics of memory.
“What we’re doing is really discovering a brain state that may be required for the formation of long-term memory,” she said. “It could have clinical applications for memory disorders ranging from schizophrenia to ADHD, but we’re not there yet.”
Overall, Wamsley is grateful to continue and build on the work she started when she arrived at Furman 10 years ago.
“I’m gratified to be at a place like Furman where we can be focused on undergraduate education and do excellent, top-notch research at the same time, just like at a major research university,” she said.