Sleep’s role in updating aversive autobiographical memories


Aversive autobiographical memories play a key role in the development and maintenance of many mental disorders. Imagery rescripting is a well-established psychotherapeutic intervention aiming to create a more adaptive version of an aversive memory by modifying its interpretation. Sleep has been shown to support reconsolidation of updated neutral memories. Here, we investigated in healthy participants whether a 90-min nap compared to wake supports the adaptive reconsolidation of autobiographical memories. Forty-four university students received a single 50-min imagery rescripting session. Thereafter, half of the participants took a 90-min nap, whereas the other half stayed awake. Subjective (arousal ratings, reports of emotions and dysfunctional cognitions) and heart rate (HR) responses to individual memory scripts were measured before the intervention (pre), after the 90-min retention interval (post 1) and 7 days later (post 2). Results demonstrate a significant decrease in distress of aversive memories pre to post imagery rescripting. The nap group showed less distressing dysfunctional cognitions along with a lower HR in response to the negative memory script as compared to the wake group at post 1. These differences were no longer evident 1 week later (post 2). Central sleep spindle density during the nap was correlated with the reduction in HR in response to the negative memory script from pre to post 1. Our results provide first evidence for sleep benefitting adaptive reconsolidation of aversive autobiographical memories. Future research should expand this approach to clinical populations and investigate precise conditions under which sleep may benefit psychotherapeutic interventions utilizing reconsolidation mechanisms.


Azza, Y., Wilhelm, F. H., Seifritz, E., Junghanns, K., Kleim, B., & Wilhelm, I. (2022). Sleep’s role in updating aversive autobiographical memories. Translational psychiatry12(1), 117.

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