Sleep is inescapable. Some will see it as a necessary evil and others will claw at it with limited success. It may leave us (largely) immobile but it is anything but a passive state. Sleep paves the way for new neural connections to be made, clears the brain of harmful waste products, is protective against mental and physical illness, and is preferable to leaving the bed on a cold Monday morning. There is still plenty of debate as to the true function of sleep, but one key area which it appears to be important for is memory.
Broadly speaking, it is argued that sleep enhances the consolidation of recently learned information compared to wakefulness. For example, a nap as short as 5-10 minutes has been shown to enhance memory and improve problem solving compared to wakefulness following learning. Moreover, rapid eye movement sleep has been linked to enhanced memory for emotional information, and to reducing the emotional strength of such memories. This suggests that different aspects of sleep are important for different types of memories and highlights some potential ways we can modify the impact of negative ones. What if we could interfere with the brain’s ability to form negative memories? More specifically, what if we could interfere with traumatic and intrusive memories which form the basis of illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Recent research seems to suggest this may be possible.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder characterised by flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance of the situation in which the trauma occurred, and emotional numbing. It is the result of a traumatic event which can be wide in scope (e.g. warfare, sexual abuse, hospital admission) and individuals with PTSD will often find themselves transported back to the event. These ‘memories’ are intrusive in nature and, understandably, highly distressing. It has been suggested that interfering with the consolidation of intrusive memories at the time they are formed (or shortly afterwards) may help those who are likely to go on to experience PTSD. Evidence to support this would unlock a powerful early intervention tool for those likely to experience trauma (e.g. refugees or soldiers). One way this can be achieved, as you have likely guessed, is through manipulating sleep.
In 2015, a study conducted at the University of Oxford explored whether sleep deprivation might be protective against intrusive traumatic memories. Participants were brought into the laboratory and randomised to either a sleep deprivation or sleep group. They were then shown a film containing traumatic scenes which lasted just over 15 minutes. Following the film, participants were either kept awake or allowed to sleep. On the following day, participants completed a questionnaire measure of PTSD symptomology and were then asked to complete a diary to track the intrusiveness, content, distress, and presence of mental imagery associated with the traumatic film for 6 days.
The Oxford group, led by Dr. Kate Porcheret, found that a night of sleep deprivation, compared to sleep as normal, reduced the intrusiveness of experimental-trauma memories. The sleep deprivation group reported fewer intrusive memories, lower PTSD symptoms scores, and (non-significantly) reduced distress of the intrusive memories. However, this effect was only found for the first two days and sleep deprivation was found to confer no protection against intrusive memories after 6 days. This suggests that sleep deprivation immediately after the traumatic experience can reduce its intrusiveness but only in the short term. Sorted. Sleep deprivation, paradoxically, confers some protective against traumatic memories. Right? Well, to quote Ben Goldacre, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”.
A study published last December in the aptly named journal SLEEP has injected additional complexity to this issue. Dr. Birgit Kleim and colleagues assessed the impact of a single night of sleep deprivation on distress and intrusiveness of traumatic memories for seven, rather than six, days. They asked 65 female participants to watch two 12 minute films of a neutral (nature documentary) or traumatic (horror film) nature in a randomised order. Participants were either allowed to sleep at home or kept awake. They were then asked to keep an intrusion diary which required participants to note when they experienced intrusive memories related to the film and rate their vividness, intrusiveness, content, and distress each day. The participants were then followed-up a week later.
So, what did they find? For the first two days following the films, there was no significant difference between the sleep or wake groups on distress or intrusiveness of the traumatic film. However, by days 6 and 7 there was a significant reduction in distress and intrusiveness for the sleep compared to wake group. By contrast, there were no difference in intrusiveness or distress of the neutral film for the sleep and wake groups. The effects found were specific for the traumatic, emotional, memory.
This second study showed that sleep deprivation does not provide a protective effect against intrusive emotional memories. Instead, they argued that sleep immediately following the trauma experience has long-term benefits on reducing the distress and intrusions associated with the traumatic memory. Nonetheless, this study does not directly contradict the one conducted by Porcheret and colleagues at Oxford. Although non-significant, distress was higher for the sleep compared to sleep deprivation group which suggests that sleep deprivation may serve an immediate protective role against traumatic memories. However, this effect seems to reverse in the relative long-term.
Why should this be so? Well, we know that memories – particularly emotional ones – are strengthened by a period of sleep. This would suggest that sleep following a traumatic experience would strengthen the memory for that experience and thus enhance the intrusiveness of a traumatic memory. This could explain why sleep deprivation produced a reduction in intrusiveness and distress for the Oxford study as the lack of sleep interfered with the ability to lay down the negative memory. However, the explanation for these studies is less clear. The authors argue that sleep deprivation is protective against intrusive memories in the short term but not the long-term. Kleim and colleagues claim that sleep following the traumatic experience may initially make it more distressing but also encourage appropriate integration of the memory alongside existing memories. This, they argue, reduces the chance that the traumatic memory will be intrusive and uncontrollable – a cardinal symptom of PTSD.
We already know that rapid eye movement sleep (REM) is associated with a reduction in the intensity of emotional images (van der Helm et al., 2011). Kleim’s study found that increased REM was associated with more, not less, intrusions. Instead, they argue that other stages of sleep are responsible for the reduction in distress and intrusions seen perhaps through a different mechanism. However, this does not state that the memory should be remembered more poorly (i.e. deliberate recall of the film would be unaffected). Rather it seems that deliberate memory recall and intrusive memories may be guided by different mechanisms and differentially affected by sleep. Neither the Porcheret or Kleim study asked participants to take a memory test of their explicit recall of the films. However, the diary studies suggest that all participants were accurate in recalling the films throughout the study period and deliberate recall does not appear to be associated with intrusive memory frequency.
A similar distinction between intrusive and deliberate recall of memories was found by another study attempting to reduce the negative impact of traumatic memories. Indeed, these are the not the first studies which have attempted to interfere with the consolidation of traumatic memories. A more colourful way of achieving this has been shown through getting people to play Tetris. For the uninitiated, Tetris is a simple game whereby you match coloured bricks of different shapes into lines of 4. They fall from the top of the screen and you have to rotate the shapes to make them line-up and disappear. In 2009, Dr Emily Holmes and colleagues at the University of Oxford showed that if they got participants to play Tetris for 10 minutes, half an hour after a traumatic film, they saw a reduction in subsequent intrusions or “flashbacks”. This effect was found for over a week follow-up during which an intrusion diary was kept. Interestingly, deliberate recall of the film was not impaired when tested at one-week follow-up. This also suggests it is possible to reduce the intrusive nature of a traumatic memory without reducing the memory for the event.
Of course, it is difficult to get someone in a warzone to take out their Tetris ration or take a nap following a fire-fight, but it highlights that it is possible to reduce the negative impact of traumatic memories. These pieces of research suggest that manipulating sleep is a viable way to reduce the ‘flashback’ quality of traumatic memories. Although promoting sleep for those having recently experienced a traumatic episode might raise its own difficulties, it heralds a step towards early intervention for PTSD. If nothing else, they remind us that sleep is important for the consolidation of memory alongside existing memory networks and how little we know about the effect of sleep on memory.
One thing we do know for sure: sleep is anything but a passive and simple state.
Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Coode-Bate, T., & Deeprose, C. (2009). Can playing the computer game “Tetris” reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? A proposal from cognitive science. PloS one, 4(1), e4153.
Kleim, B., Wysokowsky, J., Schmid, N., Seifritz, E., & Rasch, B. (2016). Effects of Sleep After Experimental Trauma on Intrusive Emotional Memories. Sleep.
Porcheret, K., Holmes, E. A., Goodwin, G. M., Foster, R. G., & Wulff, K. (2015). Psychological effect of an analogue traumatic event reduced by sleep deprivation. SLEEP, 38(7).
van der Helm, E., Yao, J., Dutt, S., Rao, V., Saletin, J. M., & Walker, M. P. (2011). REM sleep depotentiates amygdala activity to previous emotional experiences. Current Biology, 21(23), 2029-2032.
Bad Memory (Header)