Functional Role of REM Sleep in Emotional Brain Processing

In summary, this study found that REM sleep is associated with a decrease in amygdala activity in response to previous emotional experiences. This decreases functional connectivity between the amygdala and other brain regions and reduces the subjective emotionality of people the following day.
  • #1


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Abstract said:
Clinical evidence suggests a potentially causal interaction between sleep and affective brain function; nearly all mood disorders display co-occurring sleep abnormalities, commonly involving rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep [ [1] , [2] , [3] and [4] ]. Building on this clinical evidence, recent neurobiological frameworks have hypothesized a benefit of REM sleep in palliatively decreasing next-day brain reactivity to recent waking emotional experiences [ [5] and [6] ]. Specifically, the marked suppression of central adrenergic neurotransmitters during REM (commonly implicated in arousal and stress), coupled with activation in amygdala-hippocampal networks that encode salient events, is proposed to (re)process and depotentiate previous affective experiences, decreasing their emotional intensity [3]. In contrast, the failure of such adrenergic reduction during REM sleep has been described in anxiety disorders, indexed by persistent high-frequency electroencephalographic (EEG) activity (>30 Hz) [ [7] , [8] , [9] and [10] ]; a candidate factor contributing to hyperarousal and exaggerated amygdala reactivity [3 M.P. Walker and E. van der Helm, Overnight therapy? The role of sleep in emotional brain processing. Psychol. Bull., 135 (2009), pp. 731–748. Article | PDF (557 K) | | View Record in Scopus | | Full Text via CrossRef | Cited By in Scopus (30) [3] , [11] , [12] and [13] ]. Despite these neurobiological frameworks, and their predictions, the proposed benefit of REM sleep physiology in depotentiating neural and behavioral responsivity to prior emotional events remains unknown. Here, we demonstrate that REM sleep physiology is associated with an overnight dissipation of amygdala activity in response to previous emotional experiences, altering functional connectivity and reducing next-day subjective emotionality.

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peer-reviewed article:
Els van der Helm, Justin Yao, Shubir Dutt, Vikram Rao, Jared M. Saletin, Matthew P. Walker. REM Sleep Depotentiates Amygdala Activity to Previous Emotional Experiences. Current Biology, 23 November 2011 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.052
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  • #2
Fascinating piece of work. It's nice to see some hard evidence complementing existing theories regarding dreams. Though I've only skimmed the paper I see no mention of nightmares, it would be interesting to know what is happening with this phenomenon of stripping away emotional connotations in people who suffer from chronic nightmares.
  • #3
Walker speaks about nightmares and PTSD in the non-peer reviewed article.

The peer-reviewed article doesn't use the words nightmare or dream, it speaks more generally of REM sleep and the neural correlates.

What is REM sleep and how does it affect emotional brain processing?

REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is a stage of sleep characterized by rapid eye movements and increased brain activity. It is believed to play a crucial role in emotional brain processing, as it is associated with the consolidation of emotional memories and regulation of emotional responses.

How does REM sleep contribute to emotional memory consolidation?

During REM sleep, the brain processes and consolidates emotional memories by connecting them to pre-existing emotional associations and integrating them into long-term memory. This process helps to strengthen and solidify emotional memories, making them more resistant to forgetting.

Can REM sleep help regulate emotional responses?

Yes, REM sleep is thought to play a role in regulating emotional responses by promoting the processing of emotional memories and reducing the intensity of negative emotions. This can help individuals to better cope with and regulate their emotions in daily life.

What happens if REM sleep is disrupted?

Disruption of REM sleep can lead to difficulties in emotional regulation and processing. It has been linked to increased anxiety, irritability, and emotional disturbances. Long-term disruption of REM sleep may also contribute to the development of mood disorders such as depression.

Is there a connection between REM sleep and mental health?

Yes, there is a strong connection between REM sleep and mental health. Disruptions in REM sleep have been linked to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Adequate and quality REM sleep is essential for maintaining emotional well-being and overall mental health.

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