For decades, medical experts have linked sleep disorders to the deterioration of brain function in older adults, but they have thought brain deterioration caused the lack of quality sleep in Alzheimer’s patients.
Now, Oregon researchers working with research animals think the opposite may be true – that a lack of deep sleep makes the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer’s, according to a National Public Radio report this week.
A new study involving people will begin this year – and a Central Texas expert on Alzheimer’s is eager to see what’s discovered.
It’s already known that treating a sleep disorder can alleviate some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease, said Dr. John Bertelson an expert on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias with the Ascension Seton Brain & Spine Institute. (See Bertelson’s interview on this study on KEYE-TV.)
“It will be very important to see how these studies are replicated in humans, and what those results will reveal,” Bertelson said. “For now, this study adds to the large body of data that demonstrates good sleep is important and supports good cognitive health.”
Alzheimer’s disease is progressive and irreversible, causing severe impairment in memory. It is the leading cause of dementia in the U.S. and usually is associated with old age, Bertelson noted.
“The relationship between sleep and cognition is well known,” he said. “Many patients with sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), can experience significant problems with memory, attention and other aspects of cognition.
Two recent discoveries suggest sleep may play a positive role in human brain health.
The first finding occurred in 2009, when researchers at Washington University in St. Louis reported that amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s develop more quickly in the brains of sleep-deprived mice.
Four years later, another research team found a “cleansing” process occurs in the brain during deep sleep, in animals at least. This process, conducted by what’s known as the glymphatic system, allows the brain to clear out toxins – including toxins that form amyloid plaques.
Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland will now study this cleansing process in humans, taking a major step toward determining if a lack of sleep contributes to Alzheimer’s.