eLife digest | Rotating waves during human sleep spindles organize global patterns of activity that repeat precisely through the night

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Rotating waves during human sleep spindles organize global patterns of activity that repeat precisely through the night

eLife digest

Affiliation details

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, United States; Harvard Medical School, United States; University of California, San Diego, United States

When you wake up in the morning after a good night's sleep you feel refreshed. You can also think more clearly because your memory has been re-organized, a process called memory consolidation. The problem that the brain has to solve during sleep is how to integrate memories of experiences that happened during the day with old memories, without losing the older memories.

Scientists know that waves of electrical activity, referred to as spindles, help to consolidate and integrate memories during sleep. Spindles are active in the cerebral cortex, the part of your brain used for thinking, in the time between dream sleep and deep sleep. Yet it is not known exactly how these bursting patterns of electrical activity help to strengthen memories.

Now, Muller et al. explored how the spindles could strengthen and connect parts of memories stored in distant parts of the brain. First, a computer algorithm analyzed electrical recordings of brain activity taken while five patients with epilepsy slept. The patients were being monitored to help with their seizures, and the recordings showed that spindles do not occur at the same time throughout the cortex as previously thought. Instead, the spindle is a wave that begins in portion of the cortex near the ear, spirals through the cortex toward the top of back of the head and then on to the forehead area before circling back.

These repeated circular waves of electrical activity strengthen connections between brain cells in distant parts of the brain. For example, these waves may help strengthen connections between the cells of the cortex that separately store memories of the sound, sight and feel of an event during the day, whether that’s being bitten by a dog or talking with a friend. Next, Muller et al. plan to develop computer models of the spindles and verify whether their models make accurate predictions by studying spindles in sleeping mice and rats.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.17267.002