Learn more with sleep-in-a-pill!

OK, I’m overstating for effect, but it’s not hard to imagine someone taking this discovery in Science News and marketing it that way. After all, they’ve found the chemical that links sleep to learning and sleep deprivation to learning problems:

Keeping Drosophila up for hours after their normal bedtime impaired the flies’ ability to learn a complex task.

But activating a particular receptor for the neurotransmitter dopamine in a brain structure called the mushroom bodies erased the learning deficits, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found.

The new study raises the possibility that learning is impaired not because sleep sneaks up on us when we’re supposed to be paying attention, but because staying awake too long erodes some biological process in the brain critical for learning and forming memories, says David Dinges, an experimental psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Which means they’re one step closer to figuring out what sleep really does to our brains.