The brain selectively tunes to unfamiliar voices during sleep
The brain continues to respond selectively to environmental stimuli during sleep. However, the functional role of such responses, and whether they reflect information processing or rather sensory inhibition is not fully understood.
Here, we present 17 human sleepers (14 females) with their own name and two unfamiliar first names, spoken by either a familiar voice (FV) or an unfamiliar voice (UFV), while recording polysomnography during a full night’s sleep. We detect K-complexes, sleep spindles, and micro-arousals, and assess event-related, and frequency responses as well as inter-trial phase synchronization to the different stimuli presented during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
We show that UFVs evoke more K-complexes and micro-arousals than FVs. When both stimuli evoke a K-complex, we observe larger evoked potentials, more precise time-locking of brain responses in the delta band (1-4 Hz), and stronger activity in the high frequency (>16Hz) range, in response to UFVs relative to FVs. Crucially, these differences in brain responses disappear completely when no K-complexes are evoked by the auditory stimuli.
Our findings highlight discrepancies in brain responses to auditory stimuli based on their relevance to the sleeper and propose a key role for K-complexes in the modulation of sensory processing during sleep. We argue that such content-specific, dynamic reactivity to external sensory information enables the brain to enter a ‘sentinel processing mode’ in which it engages in the important internal processes that are ongoing during sleep while still maintaining the ability to process vital external sensory information.