High-Resolution Spectral Sleep Analysis Reveals a Novel Association Between Slow Oscillations and Memory Retention in Elderly Adults

Front Aging Neurosci. 2021 Jan 11;12:540424. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2020.540424. eCollection 2020.


Objective: In recognition of the mixed associations between traditionally scored slow wave sleep and memory, we sought to explore the relationships between slow wave sleep, electroencephalographic (EEG) power spectra during sleep and overnight verbal memory retention in older adults. Design, Setting, Participants, and Measurements: Participants were 101 adults without dementia (52% female, mean age 70.3 years). Delayed verbal memory was first tested in the evening prior to overnight polysomnography (PSG). The following morning, subjects were asked to recall as many items as possible from the same List (overnight memory retention; OMR). Partial correlation analyses examined the associations of delayed verbal memory and OMR with slow wave sleep (SWS) and two physiologic EEG slow wave activity (SWA) power spectral bands (0.5-1 Hz slow oscillations vs. 1-4 Hz delta activity). Results: In subjects displaying SWS, SWS was associated with enhanced delayed verbal memory, but not with OMR. Interestingly, among participants that did not show SWS, OMR was significantly associated with a higher slow oscillation relative power, during NREM sleep in the first ultradian cycle, with medium effect size. Conclusions: These findings suggest a complex relationship between SWS and memory and illustrate that even in the absence of scorable SWS, older adults demonstrate substantial slow wave activity. Further, these slow oscillations (0.5-1 Hz), in the first ultradian cycle, are positively associated with OMR, but only in those without SWS. Our findings raise the possibility that precise features of slow wave activity play key roles in maintaining memory function in healthy aging. Further, our results underscore that conventional methods of sleep evaluation may not be sufficiently sensitive to detect associations between SWA and memory in older adults.

Keywords: aging; overnight memory retention; slow oscillation; slow wave activity; slow wave sleep.