Researchers have identified how the brain triages emotions during dream sleep to consolidate the storage of positive emotions while dampening the consolidation of negative ones.
Rapid eye movement (REM or paradoxical) sleep is a unique and mysterious sleep state during which most of the dreams occur together with intense emotional contents. How and why these emotions are reactivated is unclear. The prefrontal cortex integrates many of these emotions during wakefulness but appears paradoxically quiescent during REM sleep. “Our goal was to understand the underlying mechanism and the functions of such a surprising phenomenon,” says Prof. Antoine Adamantidis from the Department of Biomedical Research (DBMR) at the University of Bern and the Department of Neurology at the Inselspital, University Hospital of Bern.
Processing emotions, particularly distinguishing between danger and safety, is critical for the survival of animals. In humans, excessively negative emotions, such as fear reactions and states of anxiety, lead to pathological states like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). In Europe, roughly 15% of the population is affected by persistent anxiety and severe mental illness. The research group headed by Antoine Adamantidis is now providing insights into how the brain helps to reinforce positive emotions and weaken strongly negative or traumatic emotions during REM sleep. This study was published in the journal Science.
Emotions During Dream Sleep
The researchers first conditioned mice to recognize auditory stimuli associated with safety and others associated with danger (aversive stimuli). The activity of neurons in the brain of mice was then recorded during sleep-wake cycles. In this way, the researchers were able to map different areas of a cell and determine how emotional memories are transformed during REM sleep.