Sleep sharpens sensory stimulus coding in human visual cortex after fear conditioning
Efficient perceptual identification of emotionally-relevant stimuli requires optimized neural coding. Because sleep contributes to neural plasticity mechanisms, we asked whether the perceptual representation of emotionally-relevant stimuli within sensory cortices is modified after a period of sleep. We show combined effects of sleep and aversive conditioning on subsequent discrimination of face identity information, with parallel plasticity in the amygdala and visual cortex. After one night of sleep (but neither immediately nor after an equal waking interval), a fear-conditioned face was better detected when morphed with another identity. This behavioral change was accompanied by increased selectivity of the amygdala and face-responsive fusiform regions. Overnight neural changes can thus sharpen the representation of threat-related stimuli in cortical sensory areas, in order to improve detection in impoverished or ambiguous situations. These findings reveal an important role of sleep in shaping cortical selectivity to emotionally-relevant cues and thus promoting adaptive responses to new dangers. (C) 2014 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.