Sleep is thought to be involved in the regulation of synaptic plasticity in two ways: by enhancing local plastic processes underlying the consolidation of specific memories and by supporting global synaptic homeostasis. Here, we briefly summarize recent structural and functional studies examining sleep-associated changes in synaptic morphology and neural excitability. These studies point to a global down-scaling of synaptic strength across sleep while a subset of synapses increases in strength. Similarly, neuronal excitability on average decreases across sleep, whereas subsets of neurons increase firing rates across sleep. Whether synapse formation and excitability is down or upregulated across sleep appears to partly depend on the cell's activity level during wakefulness. Processes of memory-specific upregulation of synapse formation and excitability are observed during slow wave sleep (SWS), whereas global downregulation resulting in elimination of synapses and decreased neural firing is linked to rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). Studies of the excitation/inhibition balance in cortical circuits suggest that both processes are connected to a specific inhibitory regulation of cortical principal neurons, characterized by an enhanced perisomatic inhibition via parvalbumin positive (PV+) cells, together with a release from dendritic inhibition by somatostatin positive (SOM+) cells. Such shift towards increased perisomatic inhibition of principal cells appears to be a general motif which underlies the plastic synaptic changes observed during sleep, regardless of whether towards up or downregulation.
Keywords: REM; SWS; excitation; inhibition; plasticity; sleep.