We know that people who sleep for eight hours after learning something new perform better than those who learn the new task during the day and are tested eight hours later without sleeping in between. More recently, scientists have discovered that odors and sounds presented during sleep can influence brain activity to further enhance the learning and memory benefits of sleep.

Now, Sujith Vijayan, an assistant professor in the School Neuroscience, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, has received a $696,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award to study whether the brain’s work during sleep can also help people learn tasks associated with brain computer interfaces.

Vijayan’s research involves brain computer interfaces, often shortened to BCIs, that allow an individual to use their brain activity alone to control an external device like a wheelchair or a cursor on a computer screen. Such interfaces can help people who have been disabled by neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), spinal cord injury, or stroke regain functions so that they can live more independently.

Until now, research into the effects of sleep on BCI task learning has entailed a few animal studies, which suggest there may be potential for human learning improvements.

But the specific ways that sleep affects learning of BCI tasks “remain a mystery,” Vijayan said. His aim is not only to discover details about those specific means, but also to investigate whether the manipulation of sleep through auditory signals might be used to enhance BCI learning.

“Although BCIs are gaining more traction in clinical settings, current applications often require intensive training to master,” Vijayan added. “If we could accelerate the learning of BCI applications through interventions that enhance natural sleep processes, it could improve the lives of people living with these frustrating conditions.”

Vijayan expects that these studies will not only have translational power but also allow for a deeper understanding of the role of sleep in learning and memory at a very basic science level.

“BCIs allow us to choose what features of brain activity and at what locations in the brain control a task, and we can then look at how the chosen activity is transformed through sleep. We can also examine how perturbations in the mapping that controls the BCI application differentially affect the underlying neural systems and impact learning. BCI applications really present a powerful tool for studying how sleep enhances learning and memory,” Vijayan said.