Reactivating memories during sleep by re-exposure to associated memory cues (e.g., odors or sounds) improves memory consolidation. Here, we tested for the first time whether verbal cueing during sleep can improve vocabulary learning. We cued prior learned Dutch words either during non-rapid eye movement sleep (NonREM) or during active or passive waking. Re-exposure to Dutch words during sleep improved later memory for the German translation of the cued words when compared with uncued words. Recall of uncued words was similar to an additional group receiving no verbal cues during sleep. Furthermore, verbal cueing failed to improve memory during active and passive waking. High-density electroencephalographic recordings revealed that successful verbal cueing during NonREM sleep is associated with a pronounced frontal negativity in event-related potentials, a higher frequency of frontal slow waves as well as a cueing-related increase in right frontal and left parietal oscillatory theta power. Our results indicate that verbal cues presented during NonREM sleep reactivate associated memories, and facilitate later recall of foreign vocabulary without impairing ongoing consolidation processes. Likewise, our oscillatory analysis suggests that both sleep-specific slow waves as well as theta oscillations (typically associated with successful memory encoding during wakefulness) might be involved in strengthening memories by cueing during sleep.
Keywords: high-density EEG; language; sleep; targeted memory reactivations; vocabulary learning.
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