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Sleep-learning Closer to Reality, Pavlov Study

Update Date: Nov 12, 2014 07:42 PM EST

Sleep-learning is one step closer to reality, according to scientists who were able to trigger behavior changes in sleeping participants exposed to olfactory conditioning.

Scientists from the New Weizmann Institute were able to provoke changes in smokers' behavior using certain kinds of sleep conditioning.

Researchers paired rotten egg and fish scents with cigarette scents and exposed them to sleeping participants who were asked to record how many cigarettes they smoked in the following week.

The findings revealed that participants exposed to unpleasant smells during sleep actually smoked significantly less cigarettes the week after olfactory conditioning.

The latest study involved 66 volunteers who wanted to quit smoking. Volunteers were asked to fill out questionnaires about their smoking habit. Later they were divided into groups with some being exposed to paired smells - cigarettes and a foul odor - one right after the other, repeatedly throughout the night in a special sleep lab.

While participants did not remember smelling the odors the next morning, participants reported smoking less over the course of the next week. However, those exposed to the paired smells when awake or when the odors were unpaired did not smoke less the following week.

"We have not yet invented a way to quit smoking as you sleep. That will require a different kind of study, altogether. What we have shown is that conditioning can take place during sleep, and this conditioning can lead to real behavioral changes. Our sense of smell may be an entryway to our sleeping brain that may, in the future, help us to change addictive or harmful behavior," Arzi concluded.

The findings are published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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