Olfactory insights into sleep-dependent learning and memory

Laura K. Shanahan, Jay A. Gottfried*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

7 Scopus citations


Sleep is pervasive throughout most of the animal kingdom-even jellyfish and honeybees do it. Although the precise function of sleep remains elusive, research increasingly suggests that sleep plays a key role in memory consolidation. Newly formed memories are highly labile and susceptible to interference, and the sleep period offers an optimal window in which memories can be strengthened or modified. Interestingly, a small but growing research area has begun to explore the ability of odors to modulate memories during sleep. The unique anatomical organization of the olfactory system, including its intimate overlap with limbic systems mediating emotion and memory, and the lack of a requisite thalamic intermediary between the nasal periphery and olfactory cortex, suggests that odors may have privileged access to the brain during sleep. Indeed, it has become clear that the long-held assumption that odors have no impact on the sleeping brain is no longer tenable. Here, we summarize recent studies in both animal and human models showing that odor stimuli experienced in the waking state modulate olfactory cortical responses in sleep-like states, that delivery of odor contextual cues during sleep can enhance declarative memory and extinguish fear memory, and that olfactory associative learning can even be achieved entirely within sleep. Data reviewed here spotlight the emergence of a new research area that should hold far-reaching implications for future neuroscientific investigations of sleep, learning and memory, and olfactory system function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationProgress in Brain Research
PublisherElsevier B.V.
StatePublished - 2014

Publication series

NameProgress in Brain Research
ISSN (Print)0079-6123
ISSN (Electronic)1875-7855


  • Associative learning
  • Cognition
  • Emotion
  • Human brain
  • Memory reactivation
  • Olfaction
  • Olfactory bulb
  • Olfactory system
  • Piriform cortex
  • Sleep

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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