REM sleep and safety signal learning in posttraumatic stress disorder: A preliminary study in military veterans

Laura D. Straus, Sonya B. Norman, Victoria B. Risbrough, Dean T. Acheson, Sean P.A. Drummond

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7 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is associated with a number of negative physical and mental health consequences. Fear conditioning plays an important mechanistic role in PTSD, and PTSD patients also show deficits in safety signal learning. Sleep, particularly REM sleep, is linked to improved safety learning and extinction processes in animal models and healthy humans. No studies have examined the link between REM sleep and safety signal learning or extinction memory in clinical populations. Methods: This study examined the relationship between REM sleep, safety signal learning, and extinction processes in veterans with PTSD (n = 13). Patients’ overnight sleep was characterized in the laboratory via polysomnography (PSG). The next day, participants underwent a fear conditioning paradigm during which they acquired fear toward a visual cue. This testing session also included a visual cue that became a safety signal (CS-). Following conditioning, the veterans’ sleep was monitored overnight again, after which they underwent extinction training. Following a third night of sleep, extinction recall and safety recall were tested. Bivariate correlations examined the relationship between the slope of safety signal learning and subsequent REM sleep, as well as the relationship between REM sleep and subsequent extinction recall and safety recall on the last day of testing. Results: Veterans learned to differentiate the CS+ and the CS- on the first day of testing. Veterans who underwent safety learning more quickly on the first day of testing showed more efficient REM sleep that night (r =.607, p =.028). On the second day of testing, the patients successfully underwent extinction learning. Patients with a higher percentage of REM sleep on the last night of the study showed more safety recall early on the last day of testing (r =.688, p =.009). Conclusion: To our knowledge, this was the first study to examine the relationship between objective sleep and fear-potentiated startle performance in veterans with PTSD. Study methods were well tolerated by participants, supporting feasibility of the experimental design. Results indicated REM sleep was associated with both initial safety learning and subsequent safety recall. Taken together with previous studies in healthy controls, these preliminary results provide additional evidence suggesting REM sleep could play a mechanistic role in the maintenance of PTSD and thus identify a modifiable biological process to target in treatment of PTSD. These findings should be replicated in larger samples.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-28
Number of pages7
JournalNeurobiology of Stress
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018


  • Fear conditioning
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Safety learning
  • Sleep

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