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Old Brains Come Uncoupled in Sleep: Slow Wave-Spindle Synchrony, Brain Atrophy, and Forgetting

  • Author(s): Helfrich, RF
  • Mander, BA
  • Jagust, WJ
  • Knight, RT
  • Walker, MP
  • et al.
Abstract

© 2017 Elsevier Inc. The coupled interaction between slow-wave oscillations and sleep spindles during non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep has been proposed to support memory consolidation. However, little evidence in humans supports this theory. Moreover, whether such dynamic coupling is impaired as a consequence of brain aging in later life, contributing to cognitive and memory decline, is unknown. Combining electroencephalography (EEG), structural MRI, and sleep-dependent memory assessment, we addressed these questions in cognitively normal young and older adults. Directional cross-frequency coupling analyses demonstrated that the slow wave governs a precise temporal coordination of sleep spindles, the quality of which predicts overnight memory retention. Moreover, selective atrophy within the medial frontal cortex in older adults predicted a temporal dispersion of this slow wave-spindle coupling, impairing overnight memory consolidation and leading to forgetting. Prefrontal-dependent deficits in the spatiotemporal coordination of NREM sleep oscillations therefore represent one pathway explaining age-related memory decline. Helfrich et al. demonstrate that the precise coupling between sleeping brainwaves, called slow waves and spindles, supports memory retention. However, this brainwave coupling during sleep is impaired in older adults due to loss of tissue in the medial frontal lobe, resulting in next-day forgetting.

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