Sleep Spindles Promote the Restructuring of Memory Representations in Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex through Enhanced Hippocampal-Cortical Functional Connectivity

J Neurosci. 2020 Feb 26;40(9):1909-1919. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1946-19.2020. Epub 2020 Jan 20.


Memory consolidation is hypothesized to involve the distribution and restructuring of memory representations across hippocampal and cortical regions. Theories suggest that, through extended hippocampal-cortical interactions, cortical ensembles come to represent more integrated, or overlapping, memory traces that prioritize commonalities across related memories. Sleep processes, particularly fast sleep spindles, are thought to support consolidation, but evidence for this relationship has been mostly limited to memory retention benefits. Whether fast spindles provide a mechanism for neural changes hypothesized to support consolidation, including the strengthening of hippocampal-cortical networks and integration across memory representations, remains unclear, as does the specificity of regions involved. Using functional connectivity analyses of human fMRI data (both sexes), we show that fast spindle density during overnight sleep is related to enhanced hippocampal-cortical functional connectivity the next day, when restudying information learned before sleep. Spindle density modulated connectivity in distinct hippocampal-cortical networks depending on the category of the consolidated stimuli. Specifically, spindle density correlated with functional connectivity between anterior hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) for object-word pairs, and posterior hippocampus and posteromedial cortex for scene-word pairs. Using multivariate pattern analyses, we also show that fast spindle density during postlearning sleep is associated with greater pattern similarity, or representational overlap, across individual object-word memories in vmPFC the next day. Further, the relationship between fast spindle density and representational overlap in vmPFC was mediated by the degree of anterior hippocampal-vmPFC functional connectivity. Together, these results suggest that fast spindles support the network distribution of memory traces, potentially restructuring memory representations in vmPFC.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT How new experiences are transformed into long-term memories remains a fundamental question for neuroscience research. Theories suggest that memories are stabilized as they are reorganized in the brain, a process thought to be supported by sleep oscillations, particularly sleep spindles. Although sleep spindles have been associated with benefits in memory retention, it is not well understood how spindles modify neural memory traces. This study found that spindles during overnight sleep correlate with changes in neural memory traces, including enhanced functional connectivity in distinct hippocampal-cortical networks and increased pattern similarity among memories in the cortex. The results provide critical evidence that spindles during overnight sleep may act as a physiological mechanism for the restructuring of neural memory traces.

Keywords: fMRI; hippocampus; memory consolidation; sleep; sleep spindles; vmPFC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / diagnostic imaging
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory Consolidation / physiology*
  • Memory, Long-Term / physiology
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / diagnostic imaging
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Polysomnography
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Sleep Stages / physiology*
  • Young Adult