The role of REM sleep theta activity in emotional memory

Front Psychol. 2015 Oct 1;6:1439. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01439. eCollection 2015.


While non-REM (NREM) sleep has been strongly implicated in the reactivation and consolidation of memory traces, the role of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep remains unclear. A growing body of research on humans and animals provide behavioral evidence for a role of REM sleep in the strengthening and modulation of emotional memories. Theta activity-which describes low frequency oscillations in the local field potential within the hippocampus, amygdala and neocortex-is a prominent feature of both wake and REM sleep in humans and rodents. Theta coherence between the hippocampus and amygdala drives large-scale pontine-geniculo-occipital (PGO) waves, the density of which predicts increases in plasticity-related gene expression. This could potentially facilitate the processing of emotional memory traces within the hippocampus during REM sleep. Further, the timing of hippocampal activity in relation to theta phase is vital in determining subsequent potentiation of neuronal activity. This could allow the emotionally modulated strengthening of novel and gradual weakening of consolidated hippocampal memory traces during REM sleep. Hippocampal theta activity is also correlated with REM sleep levels of achetylcholine - which is thought to reduce hippocampal inputs in the neocortex. The additional low levels of noradrenaline during REM sleep, which facilitate feedback within the neocortex, could allow the integration of novel memory traces previously consolidated during NREM sleep. We therefore propose that REM sleep mediates the prioritized processing of emotional memories within the hippocampus, the integration of previously consolidated memory traces within the neocortex, as well as the disengagement of consolidated neocortical memory traces from the hippocampus.

Keywords: REM sleep; acetylcholine; emotional memory; encoding; habituation; theta activity.

Publication types

  • Review