Precise Slow Oscillation–Spindle Coupling Promotes Memory Consolidation in Younger and Older Adults

Memory consolidation during sleep relies on the precisely timed interaction of rhythmic neural events. Here, we investigate differences in slow oscillations (SO; 0.5–1 Hz), sleep spindles (SP), and their coupling across the adult human lifespan and ask whether observed alterations relate to the ability to retain associative memories across sleep. We demonstrate that older adults do not show the fine-tuned coupling of fast SPs (12.5–16 Hz) to the SO peak present in younger adults but, instead, are characterized most by a slow SP power increase (9–12.5 Hz) at the end of the SO up-state. This slow SP power increase, typical for older adults, coincides with worse memory consolidation in young age already, whereas the tight precision of SO–fast SP coupling promotes memory consolidation across younger and older adults. Crucially, brain integrity in source regions of SO and SP generation, including the medial prefrontal cortex, thalamus, hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, reinforces this beneficial SO–SP coupling in old age. Our results reveal that cognitive functioning is not only determined by maintaining structural brain integrity across the adult lifespan, but also by the preservation of precisely timed neural interactions during sleep that enable the consolidation of declarative memories.

Muehlroth, B. E., Sander, M. C., Fandakova, Y., Grandy, T. H., Rasch, B., Shing, Y. L., & Werkle-Bergner, M. (2019). Precise slow oscillation-spindle coupling promotes memory consolidation in younger and older adults. Scientific Reports, 9:1940.
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