Human deep sleep is characterized by reduced sensory activity, responsiveness to stimuli, and conscious awareness. Given its ubiquity and reversible nature, it represents an attractive paradigm to study the neural changes which accompany the loss of consciousness in humans. In particular, the deepest stages of sleep can serve as an empirical test for the predictions of theoretical models relating the phenomenology of consciousness with underlying neural activity. A relatively recent shift of attention from the analysis of evoked responses toward spontaneous (or “resting state”) activity has taken place in the neuroimaging community, together with the development of tools suitable to study distributed functional interactions. In this review we focus on recent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies of spontaneous activity during sleep and their relationship with theoretical models for human consciousness generation, considering the global workspace theory, the information integration theory, and the dynamical core hypothesis. We discuss the venues of research opened by these results, emphasizing the need to extend the analytic methodology in order to obtain a dynamical picture of how functional interactions change over time and how their evolution is modulated during different conscious states. Finally, we discuss the need to experimentally establish absent or reduced conscious content, even when studying the deepest sleep stages.
Keywords: consciousness, sleep, fMRI, EEG, resting state
Citation: Tagliazucchi E, Behrens M and Laufs H (2013) Sleep neuroimaging and models of consciousness. Front. Psychol. 4:256. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00256
Received: 31 March 2013; Accepted: 17 April 2013;
Published online: 13 May 2013.
Edited by:Ursula Voss, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University Bonn, Germany
Reviewed by:Daniel Collerton, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, UK
Copyright: © 2013 Tagliazucchi, Behrens and Laufs. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.
*Correspondence: Enzo Tagliazucchi, Neurology Department and Brain Imaging Center, Goethe University Frankfurt, Schleusenweg 2 – 16, Haus 95 H, D – 60528 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org