Slow oscillations during slow-wave sleep (SWS) may facilitate memory consolidation by regulating interactions between hippocampal and cortical networks. Slow oscillations appear as high-amplitude, synchronized EEG activity, corresponding to upstates of neuronal depolarization and downstates of hyperpolarization. Memory reactivations occur spontaneously during SWS, and can also be induced by presenting learning-related cues associated with a prior learning episode during sleep. This technique, targeted memory reactivation (TMR), selectively enhances memory consolidation. Given that memory reactivation is thought to occur preferentially during the slow-oscillation upstate, we hypothesized that TMR stimulation effects would depend on the phase of the slow oscillation. Participants learned arbitrary spatial locations for objects that were each paired with a characteristic sound (eg, cat-meow). Then, during SWS periods of an afternoon nap, one-half of the sounds were presented at low intensity. When object location memory was subsequently tested, recall accuracy was significantly better for those objects cued during sleep. We report here for the first time that this memory benefit was predicted by slow-wave phase at the time of stimulation. For cued objects, location memories were categorized according to amount of forgetting from pre- to post-nap. Conditions of high versus low forgetting corresponded to stimulation timing at different slow-oscillation phases, suggesting that learning-related stimuli were more likely to be processed and trigger memory reactivation when they occurred at the optimal phase of a slow oscillation. These findings provide insight into mechanisms of memory reactivation during sleep, supporting the idea that reactivation is most likely during cortical upstates.
Significance statement: Slow-wave sleep (SWS) is characterized by synchronized neural activity alternating between active upstates and quiet downstates. The slow-oscillation upstates are thought to provide a window of opportunity for memory consolidation, particularly conducive to cortical plasticity. Recent evidence shows that sensory cues associated with previous learning can be delivered subtly during SWS to selectively enhance memory consolidation. Our results demonstrate that this behavioral benefit is predicted by slow-oscillation phase at stimulus presentation time. Cues associated with high versus low forgetting based on analysis of subsequent recall performance were delivered at opposite slow-oscillation phases. These results provide evidence of an optimal slow-oscillation phase for memory consolidation during sleep, supporting the idea that memory processing occurs preferentially during cortical upstates.
Keywords: memory consolidation; memory reactivation; phase; slow oscillation; slow-wave sleep.
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