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PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e43426. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0043426. Epub 2012 Aug 16.

Sleep supports selective retention of associative memories based on relevance for future utilization.

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Radboud University Nijmegen, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


An outstanding question is whether memory consolidation occurs passively or involves active processes that selectively stabilize memories based on future utility. Here, we differentially modulated the expected future relevance of two sets of picture-location associations after learning. Participants first studied two sets of picture-location associations. After a baseline memory test, they were instructed that only one set of associations would be retested after a 14-hour delay. For half of the participants, this test-retest delay contained a night of sleep; for the other half the delay included a normal working day. At retest, participants were re-instructed and against their expectations tested on both sets of associations. Our results show that post-learning instruction about subsequent relevance selectively improves memory retention for specific associative memories. This effect was sleep-dependent; it was present only in the group of subjects for which the test-retest delay contained sleep. Moreover, time spent asleep for participants in this sleep group correlated with retention of relevant but not irrelevant associations; participants who slept longer forgot fewer associations from the relevant category. In contrast, participants that did not sleep forgot more relevant than irrelevant associations across the test-retest delay. In summary, our results indicate that it is possible to modulate the retention of selected memories after learning with simple verbal instructions on their future relevance. The finding that this effect depends on sleep demonstrates this state's active role in memory consolidation and may have utility for educational settings.

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