The majority of research on sleep and cognition has focused on mean markers of sleep across multiple nights; however, variable sleep patterns have become increasingly common in the modern era. The purpose of this study was to examine whether objective intraindividual variability in sleep quantity and quality are related to verbal and visuospatial learning and memory functioning in young adults.
A total of 218 young adult college students were recruited from a university in the Eastern United States, among which 187 participants (70.6% female; mean age = 20.5, SD = 1.5) had complete actigraphy and cognitive performance data. Objective intraindividual means and variabilities of sleep quantity (total sleep time) and sleep quality (percent wake after sleep onset) were measured over a 1- to 2-week timeframe using wrist actigraphy. Verbal and visuospatial learning and memory were assessed using the International Shopping List and Groton Maze Learning tests of the Cogstate computerized test battery.
Greater intraindividual variability in actigraphy-derived sleep quality was associated with poorer visuospatial learning and memory performance after controlling for mean sleep quality and visuomotor attention and processing speed (ps < 0.05). Actigraphic measures of sleep quantity were not related to any learning and memory measures.
In young adults, intraindividual variability in objective sleep quality was significantly related to visuospatial learning and memory, over and above mean sleep quality. Given these associations, future studies should aim to identify modifiable lifestyle and environmental factors contributing to variable sleep quality.