Sleep promotes the consolidation of newly acquired associative memories. Here we used neuronal oscillations in the human EEG to investigate sleep-dependent changes in the cortical memory trace. The retrieval activity for object–color associations was assessed immediately after encoding and after 3 hr of sleep or wakefulness. Sleep had beneficial effects on memory performance and led to reduced event-related theta and gamma power during the retrieval of associative memories. Furthermore, event-related alpha suppression was attenuated in the wake group for memorized and novel stimuli. There were no sleep-dependent changes in retrieval activity for missed items or items retrieved without color. Thus, the sleep-dependent reduction in theta and gamma oscillations was specific for the retrieval of associative memories. In line with theoretical accounts on sleep-dependent memory consolidation, decreased theta may indicate reduced mediotemporal activity because of a transfer of information into neocortical networks during sleep, whereas reduced parietal gamma may reflect effects of synaptic downscaling. Changes in alpha suppression in the wake group possibly index reduced attentional resources that may also contribute to a lower memory performance in this group. These findings indicate that the consolidation of associative memories during sleep is associated with profound changes in the cortical memory trace and relies on multiple neuronal processes working in concert.

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