Positive emotions help the sleeping brain consolidate memories
We sleep on average one-third of the time, but what does the brain do during these long hours? Using an artificial intelligence approach capable of decoding brain activity during sleep, scientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) were able to glimpse what we think about when we are asleep, with the results published in the journal Nature Communications.
In the absence of tools capable of translating brain activity, the content of our sleeping thoughts remains inaccessible. However, we do know that sleep plays a major role in memory consolidation and emotional management: when we sleep, our brain reactivates the memory trace built during the day and helps us to regulate our emotions.
“To find out which brain regions are activated during sleep, and to decipher how these regions allow us to consolidate our memory, we developed a decoder capable of deciphering the activity of the brain in deep sleep and what it corresponds to,” said Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in the laboratory of Professor Sophie Schwartz and principal investigator on the study. “In particular, we wanted to see to what extent positive emotions play a role in this process.”
During deep sleep, the hippocampus — a structure of the temporal lobe which stores temporary traces of recent events — sends back to the cerebral cortex the information it has stored during the day. A dialogue is established which allows the consolidation of memory by replaying the events of the day and therefore reinforce the link between neurons.
To conduct their experiment, the scientists placed volunteers in a magnetic resonance imager (MRI) in the early evening and had them play two video games — a face-recognition game similar to ‘Guess Who?’ and a 3D maze from which the exit must be found. These games were chosen because they activate very different brain regions and are therefore easier to distinguish in the MRI images. In addition, the games were rigged without the volunteers’ knowledge so that only one of the two games could be won (half of the volunteers won one and the other half won the second), so that the brain would associate the game won with a positive emotion.
The volunteers then slept in the MRI for one or two hours — the length of a sleep cycle — and their brain activity was recorded again. Prof Schwartz explained, “We combined EEG [electroencephalography], which measures sleep states, and functional MRI, which takes a picture of brain activity every two seconds, and then used a ‘neuronal decoder’ to determine whether the brain activity observed during the play period reappeared spontaneously during sleep.”
By comparing MRI scans of the waking and sleeping phases, the scientists observed that during deep sleep, the brain activation patterns were very similar to those recorded during the gaming phase. “And, very clearly, the brain relived the game won and not the game lost by reactivating the regions used during wakefulness,” Sterpenich said. “As soon as you go to sleep, the brain activity changes. Gradually, our volunteers started to ‘think’ about both games again, and then almost exclusively about the game they won when they went into deep sleep.”
Two days later, the volunteers performed a memory test: recognising all the faces in the game on the one hand and finding the starting point of the maze on the other. The more the brain regions related to the game were activated during sleep, the better the memory performances. Thus, memory associated with reward is higher when it is spontaneously reactivated during sleep.
The Geneva team has thus offered a new perspective on the sleeping brain and the incredible work it does every night, sorting out the thousands of pieces of information processed during the day. Specifically, they have shown that associating a reward with specific information encourages the brain to memorise it in the long term.
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