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Memory formation occurs when the brain engages with new information – ideas, actions, or images – and then represents the information in the brain. Sleep preps the brain so that it can assimilate new information and lay down the framework for new memory traces. Areas of the brain that show high degrees of activity during intensive learning continue to show activity later during periods of sleep. Findings from a new study in mice demonstrate that sleep helps the brain associate emotions with memories.

The authors of the study showed mice a visual stimulus three times and then exposed them to a negative experience (a light shock). Half of the mice were allowed to sleep up to 12 hours, while the remainder were kept awake for six hours and then allowed to sleep up to six hours. After the sleep period, the authors showed the mice two visual stimuli – one that was similar to the first stimulus and one that differed – and assessed the animals for fearfulness. Then they identified which neurons in the brain were activated in the response to the stimulus.

They found that when mice were allowed to sleep after receiving a visual cue paired with a negative experience, the mice became fearful. Impairing the animals' sleep or blocking the activity of the neurons that were activated during the response uncoupled the visual cue from the negative experience, but the animals still exhibited fear, suggesting that when sleep was disrupted after an event that caused fear, the fear may not be linked to the event but instead may manifest as general anxiety.

These findings suggest that sleep plays a critical role in the formation of negative emotions (such as fear) and may help in understanding fear-related mental health conditions such as anxiety or PTSD.

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