Sleep is beneficial for learning. However, it remains unclear whether learning is facilitated by non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep or by REM sleep, whether it results from plasticity increases or stabilization, and whether facilitation results from learning-specific processing.
Here, we trained volunteers on a visual task and measured the excitatory and inhibitory (E/I) balance in early visual areas during subsequent sleep as an index of plasticity. The E/I balance increased during NREM sleep irrespective of whether pre-sleep learning occurred, but it was associated with post-sleep performance gains relative to pre-sleep performance.
In contrast, the E/I balance decreased during REM sleep but only after pre-sleep training, and the decrease was associated with stabilization of pre-sleep learning. These findings indicate that NREM sleep promotes plasticity, leading to performance gains independent of learning, while REM sleep decreases plasticity to stabilize learning in a learning-specific manner.