eLife | 2021
Coupling between motor cortex and striatum increases during sleep over long-term skill learning
The strength of cortical connectivity to the striatum influences the balance between behavioral variability and stability. Learning to consistently produce a skilled action requires plasticity in corticostriatal connectivity associated with repeated training of the action. However, it remains unknown whether such corticostriatal plasticity occurs during training itself or ‘offline’ during time away from training, such as sleep. Here, we monitor the corticostriatal network throughout long-term skill learning in rats and find that non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep is a relevant period for corticostriatal plasticity. We first show that the offline activation of striatal NMDA receptors is required for skill learning. We then show that corticostriatal functional connectivity increases offline, coupled to emerging consistent skilled movements, and coupled cross-area neural dynamics. We then identify NREM sleep spindles as uniquely poised to mediate corticostriatal plasticity, through interactions with slow oscillations. Our results provide evidence that sleep shapes cross-area coupling required for skill learning.