A good night’s rest might help stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease according to new research, which suggests there could be a link between a person’s sleeping patterns and their vulnerability to the disease.
Researchers from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, USA, are launching the first experiment of its kind that will study a key process in the brains of sleeping humans.
“Changes in sleep habits may actually be setting the stage” for dementia, says Jeffrey Iliff, a brain scientist at the University.
The brain appears to clear out toxins linked to Alzheimer’s during sleep, Iliff explains. And, at least among research animals that don’t get enough solid shut-eye, those toxins can build up and damage the brain.
The reason, researchers have discovered, is likely the build-up of beta amyloid plaque, a sticky amalgamation of proteins that collects in synapses and is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
The thought is that sleep may sweep toxins from the brain, preventing beta amyloid from collecting in synapses.
If proven to be correct, their research could help doctors identify those at risk for developing memory problems as well as potentially pave the way for new treatments.
To know for sure, though, researchers will have to study this cleansing process in people.
The solution may involve one of the world’s most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which is at the University.
Though the researchers know it may be challenging to get volunteers to sleep in a noisy, confined MRI machine, they hope their findings could illuminate the relationship between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.
Bill Rooney, who directs the university’s Advanced Imaging Research Center, said: “It’s a tricky thing because it’s a small space. But we’ll make people as comfortable as possible, and we’ll just follow them as they go through these natural stages of sleep.”
If Rooney and Iliff are right, the experiment will greatly strengthen the argument that a lack of sleep can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. It might also provide a way to identify people whose health is at risk because they aren’t getting enough deep sleep, and it could pave the way to new treatments.
“It could be anything from having people exercise more regularly, or new drugs,” Rooney added.