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Learn Mem. 2001 Mar-Apr;8(2):112-9.

Emotional memory formation is enhanced across sleep intervals with high amounts of rapid eye movement sleep.

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University of Bamberg, Department of Physiological Psychology, D-96045 Bamberg, Germany.


Recent studies indicated a selective activation during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep of the amygdala known to play a decisive role in the processing of emotional stimuli. This study compared memory retention of emotional versus neutral text material over intervals covering either early sleep known to be dominated by nonREM slow wave sleep (SWS) or late sleep, in which REM sleep is dominant. Two groups of men were tested across 3-h periods of early and late sleep (sleep group) or corresponding retention intervals filled with wakefulness (wake group). Sleep was recorded polysomnographically. Cortisol concentrations in saliva were monitored at acquisition and retrieval testing. As expected, the amount of REM sleep was about three times greater during late than during early retention sleep, whereas a reversed pattern was observed for SWS distribution (P < 0.001). Sleep improved retention, compared with the effects of wake intervals (P < 0.02). However, this effect was substantial only in the late night (P < 0.005), during which retention was generally worse than during the early night (P < 0.02). Late sleep particularly enhanced memory for emotional texts. This effect was highly significant in comparison with memory for neutral texts (P < 0.01) and in comparison with memory after late and early wake intervals (P < 0.001). Cortisol concentration differed between early and late retention intervals but not between sleep and wake conditions. Results are consonant with a supportive function of REM sleep predominating late sleep for the formation of emotional memory in humans.

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