Electrophysiological markers of memory consolidation in the human brain when memories are reactivated during sleep

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 Nov;119(44):e2123430119. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2123430119. Epub 2022 Oct 24.


Human accomplishments depend on learning, and effective learning depends on consolidation. Consolidation is the process whereby new memories are gradually stored in an enduring way in the brain so that they can be available when needed. For factual or event knowledge, consolidation is thought to progress during sleep as well as during waking states and to be mediated by interactions between hippocampal and neocortical networks. However, consolidation is difficult to observe directly but rather is inferred through behavioral observations. Here, we investigated overnight memory change by measuring electrical activity in and near the hippocampus. Electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings were made in five patients from electrodes implanted to determine whether a surgical treatment could relieve their seizure disorders. One night, while each patient slept in a hospital monitoring room, we recorded electrophysiological responses to 10 to 20 specific sounds that were presented very quietly, to avoid arousal. Half of the sounds had been associated with objects and their precise spatial locations that patients learned before sleep. After sleep, we found systematic improvements in spatial recall, replicating prior results. We assume that when the sounds were presented during sleep, they reactivated and strengthened corresponding spatial memories. Notably, the sounds also elicited oscillatory intracranial EEG activity, including increases in theta, sigma, and gamma EEG bands. Gamma responses, in particular, were consistently associated with the degree of improvement in spatial memory exhibited after sleep. We thus conclude that this electrophysiological activity in the hippocampus and adjacent medial temporal cortex reflects sleep-based enhancement of memory storage.

Keywords: EEG; consolidation; hippocampus; memory; sleep.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Humans
  • Memory Consolidation*
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Sleep / physiology
  • Spatial Memory