Brain and sleep maturation covary across different stages of life. At the same time, dream generation and dream recall are intrinsically dependent on the development of neural systems. The aim of this paper is to review the existing studies about dreaming in infancy, adulthood, and the elderly stage of life, assessing whether dream mentation may reflect changes of the underlying cerebral activity and cognitive processes. It should be mentioned that some evidence from childhood investigations, albeit still weak and contrasting, revealed a certain correlation between cognitive skills and specific features of dream reports. In this respect, infantile amnesia, confabulatory reports, dream-reality discerning, and limitation in language production and emotional comprehension should be considered as important confounding factors. Differently, growing evidence in adults suggests that the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the encoding and retrieval of episodic memories may remain the same across different states of consciousness. More directly, some studies on adults point to shared neural mechanisms between waking cognition and corresponding dream features. A general decline in the dream recall frequency is commonly reported in the elderly, and it is explained in terms of a diminished interest in dreaming and in its emotional salience. Although empirical evidence is not yet available, an alternative hypothesis associates this reduction to an age-related cognitive decline. The state of the art of the existing knowledge is partially due to the variety of methods used to investigate dream experience. Very few studies in elderly and no investigations in childhood have been performed to understand whether dream recall is related to specific electrophysiological pattern at different ages. Most of all, the lack of longitudinal psychophysiological studies seems to be the main issue. As a main message, we suggest that future longitudinal studies should collect dream reports upon awakening from different sleep states and include neurobiological measures with cognitive performances.
Keywords: aging; continuity hypothesis; development; dreaming; sleep; sleep mentation.