Monday, April 01, 2024

When memories get complex, sleep comes to their rescue

Here I point to a PNAS article by Lutz et al. and a commentary on the work by Schechtman. Here is the Lutz. et al. abstract:


Real-life events usually consist of multiple elements such as a location, people, and objects that become associated during the event. Such associations can differ in their strength, and some elements may be associated only indirectly (e.g., via a third element). Here, we show that sleep compared with nocturnal wakefulness selectively strengthens associations between elements of events that were only weakly encoded and of such that were not encoded together, thus fostering new associations. Importantly, these sleep effects were associated with an improved recall of the complete event after presentation of only a single cue. These findings uncover a fundamental role of sleep in the completion of partial information and are critical for understanding how real-life events are processed during sleep.


Sleep supports the consolidation of episodic memory. It is, however, a matter of ongoing debate how this effect is established, because, so far, it has been demonstrated almost exclusively for simple associations, which lack the complex associative structure of real-life events, typically comprising multiple elements with different association strengths. Because of this associative structure interlinking the individual elements, a partial cue (e.g., a single element) can recover an entire multielement event. This process, referred to as pattern completion, is a fundamental property of episodic memory. Yet, it is currently unknown how sleep affects the associative structure within multielement events and subsequent processes of pattern completion. Here, we investigated the effects of post-encoding sleep, compared with a period of nocturnal wakefulness (followed by a recovery night), on multielement associative structures in healthy humans using a verbal associative learning task including strongly, weakly, and not directly encoded associations. We demonstrate that sleep selectively benefits memory for weakly associated elements as well as for associations that were not directly encoded but not for strongly associated elements within a multielement event structure. Crucially, these effects were accompanied by a beneficial effect of sleep on the ability to recall multiple elements of an event based on a single common cue. In addition, retrieval performance was predicted by sleep spindle activity during post-encoding sleep. Together, these results indicate that sleep plays a fundamental role in shaping associative structures, thereby supporting pattern completion in complex multielement events.

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