Cerebral Cortex Communications, 3(1): tgac003, January 2022
The waking brain efficiently detects emotional signals to promote survival. However, emotion detection during sleep is poorly understood and may be influenced by individual sleep characteristics or neural reactivity. Notably, dream recall frequency has been associated with stimulus reactivity during sleep, with enhanced stimulus-driven responses in high vs. low recallers. Using electroencephalography (EEG), we characterized the neural responses of healthy individuals to emotional, neutral voices, and control stimuli, both during wakefulness and NREM sleep. Then, we tested how these responses varied with individual dream recall frequency. Event-related potentials (ERPs) differed for emotional vs. neutral voices, both in wakefulness and NREM. Likewise, EEG arousals (sleep perturbations) increased selectively after the emotional voices, indicating emotion reactivity. Interestingly, sleep ERP amplitude and arousals after emotional voices increased linearly with participants’ dream recall frequency. Similar correlations with dream recall were observed for beta and sigma responses, but not for theta. In contrast, dream recall correlations were absent for neutral or control stimuli. Our results reveal that brain reactivity to affective salience is preserved during NREM and is selectively associated to individual memory for dreams. Our findings also suggest that emotion-specific reactivity during sleep, and not generalized alertness, may contribute to the encoding/retrieval of dreams.