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Sleep. 2010 Dec;33(12):1589-603.

Functional neuroimaging insights into the physiology of human sleep.

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Cyclotron Research Center, University of Liege, and Department of Neurology, Liege University Hospital, Liege, Belgium.


Functional brain imaging has been used in humans to noninvasively investigate the neural mechanisms underlying the generation of sleep stages. On the one hand, REM sleep has been associated with the activation of the pons, thalamus, limbic areas, and temporo-occipital cortices, and the deactivation of prefrontal areas, in line with theories of REM sleep generation and dreaming properties. On the other hand, during non-REM (NREM) sleep, decreases in brain activity have been consistently found in the brainstem, thalamus, and in several cortical areas including the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), in agreement with a homeostatic need for brain energy recovery. Benefiting from a better temporal resolution, more recent studies have characterized the brain activations related to phasic events within specific sleep stages. In particular, they have demonstrated that NREM sleep oscillations (spindles and slow waves) are indeed associated with increases in brain activity in specific subcortical and cortical areas involved in the generation or modulation of these waves. These data highlight that, even during NREM sleep, brain activity is increased, yet regionally specific and transient. Besides refining the understanding of sleep mechanisms, functional brain imaging has also advanced the description of the functional properties of sleep. For instance, it has been shown that the sleeping brain is still able to process external information and even detect the pertinence of its content. The relationship between sleep and memory has also been refined using neuroimaging, demonstrating post-learning reactivation during sleep, as well as the reorganization of memory representation on the systems level, sometimes with long-lasting effects on subsequent memory performance. Further imaging studies should focus on clarifying the role of specific sleep patterns for the processing of external stimuli, as well as the consolidation of freshly encoded information during sleep.


EEG; PET; REM sleep; Sleep; delta wave; fMRI; memory; neuroimaging; non-REM sleep; sensory processing; slow oscillation; spindle

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