Despite many prior studies demonstrating offline behavioral gains in motor skills after sleep, the underlying neural mechanisms remain poorly understood. To investigate the neurophysiological basis for offline gains, we performed single-unit recordings in motor cortex as rats learned a skilled upper-limb task. We found that sleep improved movement speed with preservation of accuracy. These offline improvements were linked to both replay of task-related ensembles during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and temporal shifts that more tightly bound motor cortical ensembles to movements; such offline gains and temporal shifts were not evident with sleep restriction. Interestingly, replay was linked to the coincidence of slow-wave events and bursts of spindle activity. Neurons that experienced the most consistent replay also underwent the most significant temporal shift and binding to the motor task. Significantly, replay and the associated performance gains after sleep only occurred when animals first learned the skill; continued practice during later stages of learning (i.e., after motor kinematics had stabilized) did not show evidence of replay. Our results highlight how replay of synchronous neural activity during sleep mediates large-scale neural plasticity and stabilizes kinematics during early motor learning.
During non-REM sleep in rats, consolidation and offline improvements of a recently learned motor skill are linked to synchronous reactivation of task-related neural ensembles.
Sleep has been shown to help in consolidating learned motor tasks. In other words, sleep can induce “offline” gains in a new motor skill even in the absence of further training. However, how sleep induces this change has not been clearly identified. One hypothesis is that consolidation of memories during sleep occurs by “reactivation” of neurons engaged during learning. In this study, we tested this hypothesis by recording populations of neurons in the motor cortex of rats while they learned a new motor skill and during sleep both before and after the training session. We found that subsets of task-relevant neurons formed highly synchronized ensembles during learning. Interestingly, these same neural ensembles were reactivated during subsequent sleep blocks, and the degree of reactivation was correlated with several metrics of motor memory consolidation. Specifically, after sleep, the speed at which animals performed the task while maintaining accuracy was increased, and the activity of the neuronal assembles were more tightly bound to motor action. Further analyses showed that reactivation events occurred episodically and in conjunction with spindle-oscillations—common bursts of brain activity seen during sleep. This observation is consistent with previous findings in humans that spindle-oscillations correlate with consolidation of learned tasks. Our study thus provides insight into the neuronal network mechanism supporting consolidation of motor memory during sleep and may lead to novel interventions that can enhance skill learning in both healthy and injured nervous systems.