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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2009 Jun;34(7):1843-53. doi: 10.1038/npp.2009.6. Epub 2009 Feb 4.

Impaired off-line consolidation of motor memories after combined blockade of cholinergic receptors during REM sleep-rich sleep.

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Department of Neuroendocrinology, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany.


Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep has been considered important for the consolidation of memories, particularly of procedural skills. REM sleep, in contrast to slow-wave sleep (SWS), is hallmarked by the high, wake-like activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh), which promotes certain synaptic plastic processes underlying the formation of memories. Here, we show in healthy young men that off-line consolidation of a motor skill during a period of late sleep with high amounts of REM sleep depends essentially on high cholinergic activity. After a 3-h sleep period during the early night to satisfy the need for SWS, subjects learned a procedural finger sequence tapping task and a declarative word-pair learning task. After learning, they received either placebo or a combination of the muscarinic receptor antagonist scopolamine (4 microg/kg bodyweight, intravenously) and the nicotinic receptor antagonist mecamylamine (5 mg, orally), and then slept for another 3 h, ie, the late nocturnal sleep period, which is dominated by REM sleep. Retrieval was tested the following evening. Combined cholinergic receptor blockade significantly impaired motor skill consolidation, whereas word-pair memory remained unaffected. Additional data show that the impairing effect of cholinergic receptor blockade is specific to sleep-dependent consolidation of motor skill and does not occur during a wake-retention interval. Taken together, these results identify high cholinergic activity during late, REM sleep-rich sleep as an essential factor promoting sleep-dependent consolidation of motor skills.

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