The Role of Sleep for Episodic Memory Consolidation: Stabilizing or Rescuing?


Prior studies suggest a role for sleep in memory consolidation, with specific contributions from slow oscillations and sleep spindles (Rasch & Born, 2013). However, recent studies failed to replicate sleep’s superiority over wake in strengthening memory against interference (Cordi & Rasch, 2021). The goal of the current study is to investigate whether sleep protects newly formed memory from unspecific interference induced by daytime experiences over 24 hours, as well as to elucidate the sleep features that are involved. 56 healthy adults were randomly assigned to either the Sleep First or Wake First group. The Sleep First group encoded word pairs at night before sleep, while the Wake First group encoded word pairs in the morning before a day of wakefulness. Memory was tested 30 minutes, 12 hours, and 24 hours after encoding for both groups. The Sleep First group performed significantly better 12 hours after encoding, replicating prior findings that memory is better after a period of sleep compared to wake. However, after 24 hours, the two groups performed similarly. The Wake First group showed a positive correlation between overnight memory improvement and the theta and delta band power during slow wave sleep, an effect not found in the Sleep First group. These correlations suggest the possibility that after a day of waking interference, the brain recruits extra sleep resources to rescue memories from further forgetting. Our results are not consistent with prior studies showing a significant role for sleep in stabilizing memory from future interference, but they may suggest that sleep rescues memories after interference has occurred.