The Role of Sleep in Modulating Subjective and Autonomic Arousal

  • Isabel Hutchison

    Student thesis: Phd


    Emotion is thought to modulate the long-term fate of memories. Experiences that elicit an emotional response tend to be better remembered than comparatively unemotional events, while the emotional charge associated with these memories diminishes over time. Sleep - in particular rapid-eye movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep (SWS) - has been implicated in both the selective strengthening and affective uncharging of emotional memories. According to the sleep to forget, sleep to remember (SFSR) hypothesis, both processes occur in parallel during REM sleep. Although evidence strongly supports a role of REM sleep in the selective consolidation of emotional memories, it is far less clear to what extent sleep is involved in the development of emotional charge. While some studies support a primary role of REM in habituation (i.e. the decrease of emotional charge), others suggest a more central role of SWS. Further, existing literature indicates that the physiological (bottom-up) and cognitive (top-down) components of emotional responses may be differentially processed across sleep. Chapter 2 proposes complementary functions of REM and SWS in emotional memory processes based on a combination of evidence from rodent and human research. The experiments presented in this thesis employed polysomnography (PSG), subjective arousal testing, pupillometry, targeted memory reactivation (TMR), and transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACs) to investigate the respective roles of REM and SWS in the overnight development of subjective and autonomic arousal in response to negative emotional and neutral stimuli. In Chapter 3 I assessed how subjective and autonomic responses to neutral and negative stimuli develop across 12 hours containing either nocturnal sleep or daytime wakefulness. I found that autonomic reactivity - indexed by pupil dilation - decreased across sleep but not wake, while subjective arousal did not change across either interval. In a further experiment, I investigated whether the placement of sleep within a 24 hour interval would affect habituation. Once again, autonomic arousal decreased significantly. Subjective arousal towards negative stimuli was found to decrease more if sleep followed rather than preceded daytime wakefulness within the 24 hour interval. In Chapter 4 I explored the role of REM sleep in emotional habituation by applying 5 Hz tACs in an attempt to entrain endogenous cortical theta (4-7 Hz) activity, which has previously been associated with emotional memory consolidation in humans. Surprisingly, I found that stimulation was associated with a reduction in theta power and no change in subjective or autonomic habituation compared to the sham control night. In Chapters 5 and 6, I addressed the contribution of memory reactivations during SWS and REM sleep, respectively, in emotional habituation using TMR. In Chapter 5, I found that TMR was associated with a decrease and simultaneous increase in autonomic habituation towards negative and neutral stimuli, respectively, without affecting overnight changes in subjective arousal. In contrast, in Chapter 6, TMR during REM sleep was associated with an increase in subjective habituation towards both neutral and negative stimuli without affecting autonomic responses. In conclusion, my results provide new insights to the role of sleep in emotional habituation. I have provided evidence that targeted memory reactivation during REM sleep can modulate the development of cognitive evaluations of emotion, while TMR during SWS may interfere with autonomic habituation. This suggests distinct emotional processing during REM and SWS, as well as a dissociation between subjective and autonomic habituation across sleep. These results are discussed in the light of previous research and the model of sleep-dependent emotional memory processing proposed in Chapter 2.
    Date of Award1 Aug 2016
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • The University of Manchester
    SupervisorGorana Pobric (Supervisor) & Johan Hulleman (Supervisor)


    • pupil dilation
    • targeted memory reactivation
    • emotion
    • REM sleep
    • SWS
    • habituation

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