Medicine professor Maxim Bazhenov of the University of California San Diego recently published a study with colleagues in the Journal of Neuroscience that provides insight into the sleep mechanisms that may give rise to relational memory.

In the study, researchers created an artificial model of the brain that comprises the thalamic and cortical regions. These simulated brain regions could oscillate between awake and deep sleep states. During its awake state, the researchers trained the model to learn direct associations between represented objects (e.g. an object A and B, and an object B and C). During its sleep state, the simulated neurons representing all these objects were not themselves asleep, but instead spontaneously fired. This firing ended up strengthening indirect associations between previously unconnected objects (e.g. A and C). That is, synaptic plasticity was triggered by an emergent property of replay during sleep.

This study may be helpful in exploring mechanisms behind conditions like autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, both of which are associated with poorer relational memory, and poorer quality sleep. Improving slow-wave sleep might potentially lead to improved cognitive functioning in such patients. With memory and sleep quality also declining with age, these findings may also lead to new technologies changing the way electrical activity oscillates during sleep, and thereby assisting memory preservation.

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This post was written by Linda H