Sleep spindles—short, phasic, oscillatory bursts of activity that characterize non-rapid eye movement sleep—are one of the only electrophysiological oscillations identified as a biological marker of human intelligence (e.g., cognitive abilities commonly assessed using intelligence quotient tests). However, spindles are also important for sleep maintenance and are modulated by circadian factors. Thus, the possibility remains that the relationship between spindles and intelligence quotient may be an epiphenomenon of a putative relationship between good quality sleep and cognitive ability or perhaps modulated by circadian factors such as morningness–eveningness tendencies. We sought to ascertain whether spindles are directly or indirectly related to cognitive abilities using mediation analysis. Here, we show that fast (13.5–16 Hz) parietal but not slow (11–13.5 Hz) frontal spindles in both non-rapid eye movement stage 2 sleep and slow wave sleep are directly related to reasoning abilities (i.e., cognitive abilities that support “fluid intelligence,” such as the capacity to identify complex patterns and relationships and the use of logic to solve novel problems) but not verbal abilities (i.e., cognitive abilities that support “crystalized intelligence”; accumulated knowledge and experience) or cognitive abilities that support STM (i.e., the capacity to briefly maintain information in an available state). The relationship between fast spindles and reasoning abilities is independent of the indicators of sleep maintenance and circadian chronotype, thus suggesting that spindles are indeed a biological marker of cognitive abilities and can serve as a window to further explore the physiological and biological substrates that give rise to human intelligence.

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