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Picower Institute for Learning and Memory Neuroscientist Matt Wilson has shown not only that animals dream, but that they dream about what they experience. In a lab rat’s world, that means navigating mazes. In Wilson’s latest study, slated to appear Sept. 2 in Nature Neuroscience, researchers manipulated the content of rodent dreams by replaying an audio cue that accompanied that day’s maze.
In a study — led by Daniel Bendor, Picower Institute postdoctoral fellow, and Wilson, the Associate Department Head for Education and Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences — rats were trained to run a maze using audio cues: one sound directed the animal to run to the right end of the track for a reward and a different sound meant the reward could be found on the left.
As the animals slept, researchers recorded the activity of specific neurons within their brains that allowed them to see, as in previous experiments, that the animals’ dreams were a replay of the maze-running task they had learned while awake. Except this time, when the researchers played the audio cues into the cages of the slumbering rodents, the rats were more likely to dream about the section of the maze previously associated with the audio cue.
“Our most recent experiments demonstrate the ability to bias the content of reactivated memory during sleep to specific past experiences. This could be thought of as a simple form of dream engineering and opens up the possibility of more extensive control of memory processing during sleep to enhance selected memories and to block or modify unwanted memories,” the researchers wrote.
Wilson’s lab, which aims to establish the role of sleep in memory and cognition, hopes the knowledge will lead to new approaches to learning and behavioral therapy through manipulation of brain systems during sleep.
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship, and Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship.