The impact of post-learning sleep vs. wakefulness on recognition memory for faces with different facial expressions

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007 May;87(4):679-87. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2007.01.004. Epub 2007 Mar 2.


A beneficial effect of sleep after learning, compared to wakefulness, on memory formation has been shown in many studies using a variety of tasks. However, none of these studies has specifically addressed recognition memory for faces so far. The recognition of familiar faces, together with the extraction of emotional information from facial expression, is a fundamental cognitive skill in human everyday life, for which specific neural systems and mechanisms of processing have been developed. Here, we investigated the role of post-learning sleep for later recognition memory for neutral, happy, and angry faces. Twelve healthy subjects, after judging the emotional valence of the faces in the evening (learning phase), either slept normally in the subsequent night, with sleep recorded polysomnographically (sleep condition), or remained awake (wake condition) according to a cross-over design. Recognition testing took place in the second evening after learning, i.e. after a further night of regular sleep spent at home. Sleep after learning, compared to wakefulness, enhanced memory accuracy in recognition memory. This effect was independent of the emotional valence of facial expression. The response criterion at recognition testing did not differ between sleep and wake conditions. The amount of non rapid eye movement (NonREM) sleep during post-learning sleep correlated positively with memory accuracy at recognition testing, while time in REM sleep was associated with a speeded responding to the learned faces. Results suggest that face recognition, despite its dependence on specialized brain systems, nevertheless relies on the general neural mechanisms of sleep-associated memory consolidation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Reference Values
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness / physiology*