Accessibility statement

Memory Consolidation and Emotion Regulation in Sleep

Understanding and Enhancing the Therapeutic Function of Sleep (PI: Dr Scott Cairney, Funder: MRC)

Memories of intense, traumatic and unpleasant experiences are hard to forget. This persistence of so called ‘emotional memories’ is typically beneficial as it allows us to reflect on significant personal events and respond to future challenges effectively. However, if negative thoughts and experiences dominate our everyday lives, as is the case in major depression, then emotional memories can engulf our autobiographical histories, creating a chronic state of anxiety. Research suggests that sleep is crucial for emotional memory management. Restricted sleep impairs memory performance and psychological stability in healthy adults, while sleep disturbances are commonplace in major depression, affecting up to 90% of patients. A full understanding of the relationship between sleep, memory and emotion is therefore vital for gaining scientific insights into the mind, learning more about the fundamental biology of mental health and disease, and identifying innovative targets for therapeutic intervention. Combining behavioural testing, sleep polysomnography and fMRI, the aim of this project is to provide a systematic investigation of the mechanisms by which sleep processes emotional memories. This will offer new headway in disentangling the links between chronic sleep disturbances and emotional memory impairments in psychiatric conditions, and may lay the groundwork for innovative therapeutic interventions.

Promoting Rapid And Sustained Learning Of Novel Information: Towards A New Learning Technique For The Classroom (PI: Dr Aidan Horner, Funder: ESRC)

In education, we want students to acquire new information quickly and retain that information over long time periods. Unfortunately, student learning rarely conforms to this ideal. We can learn quickly when new information is supported by previously acquired knowledge of the topic. However, when a topic is entirely novel, learning is typically slow and effortful. For example, we might rapidly learn about the structure of neurons ('brain cells') if we have pre-existing knowledge about the structure of other cells in the body. However, that information would take time to learn, and would likely be forgotten rapidly, when not supported by pre-existing knowledge.

Cognitive psychology has revealed several post-encoding strategies and techniques to improve long-term retention of novel information. For example, repeated learning spaced out over time (the 'spacing effect'), as well as practicing retrieving the information ('retrieval practice'), have been shown in increase the retention of newly learnt information in the long-term. Ideally, we want to be able to learn new information without the need for pre-existing knowledge, or more effortful post-encoding techniques. We have recently shown that learning can be fast, and sustained over long periods, without the need for pre-existing knowledge, if learnt in a specific manner. This suggests we can learn completely novel information quickly, and retain that information for long time periods, under specific experimental conditions.

Using experimental psychology, computational modelling and functional brain imaging, we will provide a theoretical basis for this rapid and sustained learning effect, and reveal the optimal conditions for it to occur. We will then assess whether this rapid, sustained, learning is seen in children to ensure it could be used at all educational levels. Finally, we will assess whether the effect can be used to learn real educational material - for example, the structure of neurons in the brain. By the end of the grant, we will have provided a theoretical basis for how we can learn novel information quickly, and retain that information in the long term. Further, we will have taken critical steps to using this technique in the real-world.

The effect of CPAP therapy on memory consolidation and sleep architecture in adults with obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (PI: Dr Lisa Henderson, Funder: White Rose Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership)

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome (OSAS) affects 2-4% of men, 1-2% of women, and up to 15% of aging people (Gibson, 2005). It is characterised by repeated episodes of upper airway obstruction during sleep, resulting in hypoxia and disturbed sleep (Dempsey et al., 2010). OSAS is strongly linked to obesity (Arens et al., 2000), poor mental health (Grunstein et al., 1995) and impaired cognitive function (Nemeth et al., 2012; Engleman & Douglas, 2004), creating a substantial socio-economic burden. Sleep affects the consolidation process that strengthens newly formed memories (Rasch & Born, 2013). A strongly supported view is that newly encountered information is first stored temporarily in the hippocampus, with components of sleep such as “slow oscillations” (<1 Hz) promoting transfer to longer-term neocortical sites (Marshall & Born, 2007). However, few studies have examined memory consolidation in patients with OSAS (Cipelli et al., 2013) with even fewer incorporating measures of sleep EEG. In one exception, Guo et al. 2013) observed reduced overnight improvements in declarative memory that correlated with slow-wave sleep duration in 22 adults with OSAS, despite similar performance to controls prior to sleep. Overnight improvements in procedural memory tasks are also conspicuously absent, even when patients are matched with controls on alertness (Csabi, et al., 2014; Djonlagic et al., 2012; Kloepfer et al., 2009); however an absence of sleep EEG data in these studies means that group differences in procedural memory consolidation may not be sleep-dependent. OSAS is treated with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), requiring patients to wear a face mask during sleep to regulate breathing. Systematic reviews have confirmed moderate/large post-treatment improvements in sleepiness (Engleman & Douglas, 2004), and sleep efficiency/onset latency (Jenkinson et al.,1999; Ballester et al., 1999; Giles et al., 2006). Preliminary evidence also suggests that CPAP can lead to immediate changes in sleep architecture, including increased slow-wave sleep (Chikadze et al., 2013; McArdle & Douglas, 2001). However, we do not know if these benefits maintain over time and/or extend to memory consolidation. By addressing these gaps, the proposed research will have clear clinical value and broader benefits for advancing theories of sleep-dependent consolidation across patient and non-patient populations.

Reactivating Memories in Sleep (PI: Prof Gareth Gaskell, Funder: ESRC)

Recent research has provided good evidence that sleep has a role to play in consolidation of new declarative memories (for facts and words) in humans. However, we are still far from understanding how consolidation operates and why sleep is involved. One promising line of evidence has used external selective reactivation of memories during sleep. In this paradigm, participants first learn a set of new declarative memories (e.g., object-location mappings) and in the learning phase they hear sounds associated with each object (e.g., a miaow for a cat). During sleep, some of the new memories are reactivated by playing the same sounds embedded in noise, with the reactivated memories being better recalled after sleep. This external reactivation paradigm is a highly promising tool for studying memory consolidation. One possible explanation is that the external reactivation serves as a trigger for transferring new memories from temporary storage in the hippocampus to more permanent and robust storage in the neocortex of the brain. Alternatively, the reactivation may simply strengthen the existing representation without altering its location within the brain. Here we are exploring these possibilities in order to understand how memory consolidation works, how reactivation works, and in what circumstances sleep influences consolidation.