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Coupling of autonomic and central events during sleep benefits declarative memory consolidation


While anatomical pathways between forebrain cognitive and brainstem autonomic nervous centers are well-defined, autonomic-central interactions during sleep and their contribution to waking performance are not understood. Here, we analyzed simultaneous central activity via electroencephalography (EEG) and autonomic heart beat-to-beat intervals (RR intervals) from electrocardiography (ECG) during wake and daytime sleep. We identified bursts of ECG activity that lasted 4-5 s and predominated in non-rapid-eye-movement sleep (NREM). Using event-based analysis of NREM sleep, we found an increase in delta (0.5-4 Hz) and sigma (12-15 Hz) power and an elevated density of slow oscillations (0.5-1 Hz) about 5 s prior to peak of the heart rate burst, as well as a surge in vagal activity, assessed by high-frequency (HF) component of RR intervals. Using regression framework, we show that these Autonomic/Central Events (ACE) positively predicted post-nap improvement in a declarative memory task after controlling for the effects of spindles and slow oscillations from sleep periods without ACE. No such relation was found between memory performance and a control nap. Additionally, NREM ACE negatively correlated with REM sleep and learning in a non-declarative memory task. These results provide the first evidence that coordinated autonomic and central events play a significant role in declarative memory consolidation.

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