Neuroscientists just uncovered a fascinating link between sleep, memory, and breathing

In a groundbreaking study, researchers have discovered a significant link between breathing patterns during sleep and the brain’s ability to consolidate memories. This finding, published in Nature Communications , sheds light on how the simple act of breathing might play a pivotal role in organizing the brain’s memory-related activities during sleep.

The motivation behind this innovative research stemmed from a desire to understand the complex interplay between various physiological processes and memory consolidation during sleep. Prior research had established the critical role of specific sleep stages, particularly non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, in memory strengthening.

During NREM sleep, the brain goes through distinct oscillations or rhythmic activities, which are believed to be crucial for transferring and solidifying memories. However, the intricacies of how these processes are regulated remained a mystery. With growing evidence suggesting that respiration influences cognitive functions during wakefulness, the researchers were curious to explore whether breathing might have a similar impact during sleep.

To grasp the study’s significance, it’s essential to understand two key concepts: sleep-related oscillations and memory reactivation. Sleep-related oscillations refer to the rhythmic activities in the brain during sleep, notably slow oscillations and sleep spindles. These oscillations are not just random brain activities but are thought to be crucial for memory consolidation – the process of transforming new, potentially fragile memories into stable, long-term ones. Memory reactivation is a phenomenon where memories formed during wakefulness are ‘replayed’ and strengthened during sleep, mainly during these specific oscillations.

“We know quite well that the memory function of sleep relies on the precise interplay of sleep-related oscillations. On the other hand, there is growing evidence that respiration impacts neural activity and cognition during wake. Hence, we were curious to assess whether respiration might take on a similar role during sleep by shaping sleep rhythms and ensuing cognitive processes,” explained study author Thomas Schreiner, leader of the Emmy Noether junior research group at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München’s Department of Psychology.

Conducted at a sleep laboratory, the study involved 20 healthy participants who were monitored over two separate sessions, with each session spaced at least a week apart. This design was intentional to avoid any carryover effects from the first session to the second.

Before diving into the main experiment, participants were familiarized with the sleep laboratory environment through an adaptation nap. This step was crucial to ensure that participants were comfortable and to minimize any potential disturbances or anxiety that might arise from sleeping in an unfamiliar setting.

Once the actual experiment commenced, participants engaged in a series of tasks. They started with a psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), a standard test to assess alertness and reaction times. This was followed by a memory task, where participants learned associations between 120 verbs and images of either objects or scenes. This learning phase was crucial, as it set the stage for later testing memory consolidation.

The heart of the experiment was the nap period. Participants were given 120 minutes to sleep, during which their brain activity, muscle activity, heart activity, and breathing were recorded. After the nap, participants’ alertness was reassessed using the PVT, and their memory performance was tested again.

To analyze the data, the researchers focused on specific phases of the respiratory cycle and their synchronization with brain oscillations recorded in the EEG. They looked for patterns and correlations, seeking to understand how these physiological processes might be interlinked.

A key discovery was the significant association between the rhythm of breathing and specific brain activities during sleep, known as slow oscillations and sleep spindles. Slow oscillations are a type of deep, slow brain wave that occur during restorative sleep. Sleep spindles, on the other hand, are sudden bursts of oscillatory brain activity.

The researchers found that these two types of brain activities were intricately synchronized with breathing patterns. Slow oscillations often appeared just before the peak of inhalation, whereas sleep spindles tended to occur right after the inhalation peak. This synchronization appeared to be a fundamental aspect of how the brain organizes its memory consolidation process during sleep.

Delving deeper, Schreiner and his colleagues found that this coupling between breathing patterns and sleep-related brain oscillations had a significant impact on the process of memory reactivation. The strength of the synchronization between breathing and these brain oscillations correlated with the extent to which memories were reactivated during sleep.

Essentially, the way participants breathed while asleep influenced the effectiveness of their memory processing. This finding suggests that the simple act of breathing could play a pivotal role in organizing the brain’s memory-related activities during sleep.

The findings highlight the fact “that sleep is really important both for our physical wellbeing but also for our cognitive functioning,” Schreiner told PsyPost. “Accordingly, it is quite important to maintain/establish a good sleep hygiene and to act accordingly in case of compromised sleep (e.g. due to sleep related breathing disorders).”

However, it’s important to note that the study’s findings were correlational. This means that while a connection between breathing patterns and brain activities during sleep was established, it does not necessarily imply a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Understanding the exact nature of this relationship requires further investigation.

“Our results at hand are correlational in nature. That means we just describe the relationship between respiration during sleep and sleep related rhythms. While this was an important first step, it will be crucial to assess the causality of this relationship (e.g. by directly manipulating breathing during sleep and assess its impact on sleep rhythms).”

Additionally, the sample was predominantly female, with an average age of around 21 years. “A crucial step will be to move on to more diverse populations in terms of age and sleep quality,” Schreiner said.

Future research directions are plentiful and promising. One avenue is exploring interventions that could enhance memory consolidation during sleep by targeting the relationship between breathing and brain rhythms. This could have profound implications, especially for older adults who often experience declines in both respiratory function and memory capabilities.

“I am every time surprised, even though we build upon a rich body of previous work on sleep and memory, how many facets of this relationship we still do not […]


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