Competitive dynamics underlie cognitive improvements during sleep

Pin Chun Chen, Hamid Niknazar, William A. Alaynick, Lauren N. Whitehurst, Sara C. Mednick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


We provide evidence that human sleep is a competitive arena in which cognitive domains vie for limited resources. Using pharmacology and effective connectivity analysis, we demonstrate that long-term memory and working memory are served by distinct offline neural mechanisms that are mutually antagonistic. Specifically, we administered zolpidem to increase central sigma activity and demonstrated targeted suppression of autonomic vagal activity. With effective connectivity, we determined the central activity has greater causal influence over autonomic activity, and the magnitude of this influence during sleep produced a behavioral tradeoff between offline long-term and working memory processing. These findings suggest a sleep switch mechanism that toggles between central sigma-dependent long-term memory and autonomic vagal-dependent working memory processing.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2109339118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number51
StatePublished - Dec 21 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank undergraduate research assistants in the laboratory for assistance with data collection. This work was supported by NIH Grant R01AG046646, Office 16 of Naval Research, and the Young Investigator Award to S.C.M. (Grant N00014-14-1-0513).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Long-term memory
  • Sleep
  • Spindle activity
  • Vagal activity
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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