Acoustic stimulation methods applied during sleep in young adults can increase slow wave activity (SWA) and improve sleep-dependent memory retention. It is unknown whether this approach enhances SWA and memory in older adults, who generally have reduced SWA compared to younger adults. Additionally, older adults are at risk for age-related cognitive impairment and therefore may benefit from non-invasive interventions. The aim of this study was to determine if acoustic stimulation can increase SWA and improve declarative memory in healthy older adults. Thirteen participants 60-84 years old completed one night of acoustic stimulation and one night of sham stimulation in random order. During sleep, a real-time algorithm using an adaptive phase-locked loop modeled the phase of endogenous slow waves in midline frontopolar electroencephalographic recordings. Pulses of pink noise were delivered when the upstate of the slow wave was predicted. Each interval of five pulses ("ON interval") was followed by a pause of approximately equal length ("OFF interval"). SWA during the entire sleep period was similar between stimulation and sham conditions, whereas SWA and spindle activity were increased during ON intervals compared to matched periods during the sham night. The increases in SWA and spindle activity were sustained across almost the entire five-pulse ON interval compared to matched sham periods. Verbal paired-associate memory was tested before and after sleep. Overnight improvement in word recall was significantly greater with acoustic stimulation compared to sham and was correlated with changes in SWA between ON and OFF intervals. Using the phase-locked-loop method to precisely target acoustic stimulation to the upstate of sleep slow oscillations, we were able to enhance SWA and improve sleep-dependent memory storage in older adults, which strengthens the theoretical link between sleep and age-related memory integrity.
Keywords: acoustic stimulation; aging; memory; sleep; slow waves.