CZAAWE Resource Article

Animal models for information processing during sleep
Publication Type 
Journal Article
Year of publication 
International Journal of Psychophysiology
Information provided by external stimuli does reach the brain during sleep, although the amount of information is reduced during sleep compared to wakefulness. The process controlling this reduction is called ‘sensory’ gating and evidence exists that the underlying neurophysiological processes take place in the thalamus. Furthermore, it is clear that stimuli given during sleep can alter the functional state of the brain. Two factors have been shown to play a crucial role in causing changes in the sleeping brain: the intensity and the relevance of the stimulus. Intensive stimuli arouse the brain, as well as stimuli having a high informational impact on the sleeping person. The arousal threshold for important stimuli is quite low compared to neutral stimuli. A central question in sleep research is whether associative learning, or in other words the formation of new associations between stimuli, can take place in a sleeping brain. It has been shown that simple forms of learning are still possible during sleep. In sleeping rats, it is proven that habituation, an active, simple form of learning not to respond to irrelevant stimuli, can occur. Moreover, there is evidence for the view that more complex associations can be modulated and newly formed during sleep. This is shown by two experimental approaches: an extinction paradigm and a latent inhibition (pre-exposure) paradigm. The presentation of non-reinforced stimuli during sleep causes slower extinction compared to the same presentation of these stimuli during wakefulness. Consistently, the suppressive capacity of a stimulus in the latent inhibition paradigm is less when previously pre-exposed during sleep, as compared to pre-exposure during wakefulness. Thus, while associative learning is not completely blocked during sleep, aspects of association formation are clearly altered. However, animal studies also clearly indicate that complex forms of learning are not possible during sleep. It is hypothesised that this restriction in information processing during sleep is due to the considerable reduction of incoming information by the sleeping brain. This reduction may serve to protect the sleep process.