Baseline levels of rapid eye movement sleep may protect against excessive activity in fear-related neural circuitry

Itamar Lerner, Shira M. Lupkin, Neha Sinha, Alan Tsai, Mark A. Gluck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Sleep, and particularly rapid eye movement sleep (REM), has been implicated in the modulation of neural activity following fear conditioning and extinction in both human and animal studies. It has long been presumed that such effects play a role in the formation and persistence of posttraumatic stress disorder, of which sleep impairments are a core feature. However, to date, few studies have thoroughly examined the potential effects of sleep prior to conditioning on subsequent acquisition of fear learning in humans. Furthermore, these studies have been restricted to analyzing the effects of a single night of sleep—thus assuming a state-like relationship between the two. In the current study, we used long-term mobile sleep monitoring and functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to explore whether trait-like variations in sleep patterns, measured in advance in both male and female participants, predict subsequent patterns of neural activity during fear learning. Our results indicate that higher baseline levels of REM sleep predict reduced fear-related activity in, and connectivity between, the hippocampus, amygdala and ventromedial PFC during conditioning. Additionally, skin conductance responses (SCRs) were weakly correlated to the activity in the amygdala. Conversely, there was no direct correlation betweenREMsleep and SCRs, indicating that REMmayonly modulate fear acquisition indirectly. In a follow-up experiment,weshow that these results are replicable, though to a lesser extent, when measuring sleep over a single night just before conditioning. As such, baseline sleep parameters may be able to serve as biomarkers for resilience, or lack thereof, to trauma.Significance Statement Numerous studies over the past two decades have established a clear role of sleep in fear-learning processes. However, previous work has focused on the effects of sleep following fear acquisition, thus neglecting the potential effects of baseline sleep levels on the acquisition itself. The current study provides the first evidence in humans of such an effect. Specifically, the results of this study suggest that baseline rapid eye movement (REM) sleep may serve a protective function against enhanced fear encoding through the modulation of connectivity between the hippocampus, amygdala, and the ventromedial PFC. Building on this finding, baseline REMmeasurements may serve as a noninvasive biomarker for resilience to trauma or, conversely, to the potential development of posttraumatic stress disorder following trauma.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11233-11244
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number46
StatePublished - Nov 15 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)


  • FMRI
  • Fear learning
  • PTSD
  • REM sleep
  • Rapid eye movement sleep
  • Sleep


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