Friday, November 11, 2022

Sleep preferentially consolidates negative aspects of human emotional memory

The Nov. 1, 2022 issue of PNAS has a special feature on Sleep, Brain, and Cognition. A large body of research suggests that sleep benefits memory, and I want to point in particular to an article by Denis et al. showing that sleep preferentially consolidates negative aspect of emotional memory. They also found that while research participants demonstrated better memory for positive objects compared to their neutral backgrounds, sleep did not modulate this effect.  


Recent research has called into question whether sleep improves memory, especially for emotional information. However, many of these studies used a relatively small number of participants and focused only on college student samples, limiting both the power of these findings and their generalizability to the wider population. Here, using the well-established emotional memory trade-off task, we investigated sleep’s impact on memory for emotional components of scenes in a large online sample of adults ranging in age from 18 to 59 y. Despite the limitations inherent in using online samples, this well-powered study provides strong evidence that sleep selectively consolidates negative emotional aspects of memory and that this effect generalizes to participants across young adulthood and middle age.
Research suggests that sleep benefits memory. Moreover, it is often claimed that sleep selectively benefits memory for emotionally salient information over neutral information. However, not all scientists are convinced by this relationship [e.g., J. M. Siegel. Curr. Sleep Med. Rep., 7, 15–18 (2021)]. One criticism of the overall sleep and memory literature—like other literature—is that many studies are underpowered and lacking in generalizability [M. J. Cordi, B. Rasch. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol., 67, 1–7 (2021)], thus leaving the evidence mixed and confusing to interpret. Because large replication studies are sorely needed, we recruited over 250 participants spanning various age ranges and backgrounds in an effort to confirm sleep’s preferential emotional memory consolidation benefit using a well-established task. We found that sleep selectively benefits memory for negative emotional objects at the expense of their paired neutral backgrounds, confirming our prior work and clearly demonstrating a role for sleep in emotional memory formation. In a second experiment also using a large sample, we examined whether this effect generalized to positive emotional memory. We found that while participants demonstrated better memory for positive objects compared to their neutral backgrounds, sleep did not modulate this effect. This research provides strong support for a sleep-specific benefit on memory consolidation for specifically negative information and more broadly affirms the benefit of sleep for cognition.

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