Low acetylcholine during slow-wave sleep is critical for declarative memory consolidation


National Academy of Sciences


The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is considered essential for proper functioning of the hippocampus-dependent declarative memory system, and it represents a major neuropharmacological target for the treatment of memory deficits, such as those in Alzheimer's disease. During slow-wave sleep (SWS), however, declarative memory consolidation is particularly strong, while acetylcholine levels in the hippocampus drop to a minimum. Observations in rats led to the hypothesis that the low cholinergic tone during SWS is necessary for the replay of new memories in the hippocampus and their long-term storage in neocortical networks. However, this low tone should not affect nondeclarative memory systems. In this study, increasing central nervous cholinergic activation during SWS-rich sleep by posttrial infusion of 0.75 mg of the cholinesterase inhibitor physostigmine completely blocked SWS-related consolidation of declarative memories for word pairs in human subjects. The treatment did not interfere with consolidation of a nondeclarative mirror tracing task. Also, physostigmine did not alter memory consolidation during waking, when the endogenous central nervous cholinergic tone is maximal. These findings are in line with predictions that a low cholinergic tone during SWS is essential for declarative memory consolidation.

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