Visual imagery and visual perception induce similar changes in occipital slow waves of sleep

J Neurophysiol. 2019 Jun 1;121(6):2140-2152. doi: 10.1152/jn.00085.2019. Epub 2019 Apr 3.


Previous studies have shown that regional slow-wave activity (SWA) during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep is modulated by prior experience and learning. Although this effect has been convincingly demonstrated for the sensorimotor domain, attempts to extend these findings to the visual system have provided mixed results. In this study we asked whether depriving subjects of external visual stimuli during daytime would lead to regional changes in slow waves during sleep and whether the degree of "internal visual stimulation" (spontaneous imagery) would influence such changes. In two 8-h sessions spaced 1 wk apart, 12 healthy volunteers either were blindfolded while listening to audiobooks or watched movies (control condition), after which their sleep was recorded with high-density EEG. We found that during NREM sleep, the number of small, local slow waves in the occipital cortex decreased after listening with blindfolding relative to movie watching in a way that depended on the degree of visual imagery subjects reported during blindfolding: subjects with low visual imagery showed a significant reduction of occipital sleep slow waves, whereas those who reported a high degree of visual imagery did not. We also found a positive relationship between the reliance on visual imagery during blindfolding and audiobook listening and the degree of correlation in sleep SWA between visual areas and language-related areas. These preliminary results demonstrate that short-term alterations in visual experience may trigger slow-wave changes in cortical visual areas. Furthermore, they suggest that plasticity-related EEG changes during sleep may reflect externally induced ("bottom up") visual experiences, as well as internally generated ("top down") processes. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Previous work has shown that slow-wave activity, a marker of sleep depth, is linked to neural plasticity in the sensorimotor cortex. We show that after short-term visual deprivation, subjects who reported little visual imagery had a reduced incidence of occipital slow waves. This effect was absent in subjects who reported strong spontaneous visual imagery. These findings suggest that visual imagery may "substitute" for visual perception and induce similar changes in non-rapid eye movement slow waves.

Keywords: NREM; high-density EEG; plasticity; slow wave; visual imagery.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Waves / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology*
  • Sensory Deprivation / physiology*
  • Sleep, Slow-Wave / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception
  • Young Adult