Summary Impaired fear extinction and disturbed sleep coincide in post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the nature of this relationship is unclear. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep deprivation impairs fear extinction recall in rodents
and young healthy subjects, and animal models have demonstrated both disrupted sleep after fear conditioning and normalized sleep after extinction learning. As a correlation between unconditioned stimulus (US) responding and subsequent sleep architecture has been observed in healthy subjects,
the goal of this study was to test whether US intensity would causally affect subsequent sleep. Twenty‐four young healthy subjects underwent a fear conditioning session with skin conductance response measurements before an afternoon session of polysomnographically recorded sleep (up
to 120 min) in the sleep laboratory. Two factors were manipulated experimentally in a 2 × 2 design: US (electrical shock) was set at high or low intensity, and subjects did or did not receive an extinction session after fear conditioning. We observed that neither factor
affected REM sleep amount, that high US intensity nominally increased sleep fragmentation (more Stage 1 sleep, stage shifts and wake after sleep onset), and that extinction increased Stage 4 amount. Moreover, reduced Stage 1 and increased Stage 4 and REM sleep were associated with subjective
sleep quality of the afternoon nap. These results provide evidence for the notion that US intensity and extinction affect subsequent sleep architecture in young healthy subjects, which may provide a translational bridge from findings in animal studies to correlations observed in PTSD patients.