Sleep and Spatial Memory in Humans

Sleep disruption found to impair spatial navigational memory performance in humans, according to a group at the New York University (NYU).


It is estimated that we spend around 23 years of our life asleep and so, it is no surprise that the topic has received a considerable amount of attention since the first physiological paper was published on sleep, just over a century ago. In recent years, sleep has been consistently implicated as playing an important role in several aspects of memory processing. Specifically, sleep is composed of multiple stages and it is becoming apparent that each stage may be relevant for a particular form of memory processing. For example, rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep is considered to be the ‘deepest’ stage of sleep in which, the brain is particularly active compared to the other stages. It appears that REM sleep is specifically associated with procedural and emotional memory processing. Other stages of sleep can be collectively referred to as non-rapid-eye movement sleep (NREM) and are often associated with memory consolidation.


While these findings do appear relatively robust in terms of causality, they are predominantly based on research conducted with animals. However, Varga et al. of NYU, recruited human participants who suffered from a severe, obstructive sleep apnea – a disorder that affects breathing during sleep. They took a novel approach in manipulating a common treatment for the disorder known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), to specifically target REM sleep patterns. Following training on a 3D maze navigation task, it was demonstrated that depleting REM sleep (without disrupting NREM sleep) was associated with a significant impairment in the participant’s ability to successfully navigate the maze, as compared with performance following undisrupted REM sleep.


This study is the first to suggest that REM sleep could be important for spatial memory processing, using human participants. Based on an extensive pool of animal-based research, it is becoming clear that sleep could play an important role in memory. However, it is crucial that these findings can be replicated using human-based research for any applicable theories of sleep to be formulated. Studies such as this represent an important step in this translation, but far more work is necessary for any conclusive statements to be made about what role the different stages of sleep may play in memory.


Original article:

Varga, A. W., Kishi, A., Mantua, J., Lim, J., Koushyk, V., Leibert, D. P., & Ayappa, I. (2014). Apnea-Induced Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Disruption Impairs Human Spatial Navigational Memory. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(44), 14571–14577.

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