•Precise coupling of NREM (Non-rapid-eye-movement) slow waves and spindles dictates memory consolidation
•Aging impairs slow wave-spindle coupling, leading to overnight forgetting
•Age-related atrophy in mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex) predicts the failure of such coupling and thus memorySummary
The coupled interaction between slow-wave oscillations and sleep spindles during non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep has been proposed to support memory consolidation. However, little evidence in humans supports this theory. Moreover, whether such dynamic coupling is impaired as a consequence of brain aging in later life, contributing to cognitive and memory decline, is unknown. Combining electroencephalography (EEG), structural MRI, and sleep-dependent memory assessment, we addressed these questions in cognitively normal young and older adults. Directional cross-frequency coupling analyses demonstrated that the slow wave governs a precise temporal coordination of sleep spindles, the quality of which predicts overnight memory retention. Moreover, selective atrophy within the medial frontal cortex in older adults predicted a temporal dispersion of this slow wave-spindle coupling, impairing overnight memory consolidation and leading to forgetting. Prefrontal-dependent deficits in the spatiotemporal coordination of NREM sleep oscillations therefore represent one pathway explaining age-related memory decline.