Even with the massive amounts of money and effort that have been funneled into finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, treatment has managed to evade us. In order to find a solution, many researchers are backtracking to study what sorts of factors can lead to dementia in the future. One of the most promising recent findings has been the link between Alzheimer’s and sleep.
According to eurekalert.org, researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have been able to show for the first time how pathological changes in brain activity can have an impact on the storing of information during sleep. It was already known that sleep plays an important part in the forming of memories, and that those suffering from Alzheimer’s frequently have sleep disorders.
The focus was on sleep slow waves, or “slow oscillations,” that the brain generates at night which play a specific role in consolidating and shifting memories into long-term storage. These waves are created via a network of cells in the cortex of the brain, which spread out into corresponding areas of the brain such as the hippocampus.
“These waves are a kind of signal through which these areas of the brain send mutual confirmation to say ‘I am ready, the exchange of information can go ahead.’ Therefore, there is a high degree of coherence between very distant nerve cell networks during sleep”, explains Dr. Dr. Marc Aurel Busche, scientist at the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at TUM University Hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar and TUM Institute of Neuroscience.
Using mice as models, researchers were able to pinpoint the mechanism of slow oscillation formation, and in turn alleviate the impairment with pharmaceuticals. They found that proteins call beta amyloids, which can bunch together into a plaque, disrupt the coherence process.
They found one group of sleep-inducing drugs, benzodiazepines, known to boost inhibitory actions in the brain, that demonstrated a positive effect and improved learning performance.
“Given this new information about sleep habits in your 30s and 40s influencing the likelihood of getting Dementia and also knowing that environment and brain trauma can also contribute, we must put a greater emphasis on protecting the brain and brain health from infancy on,” says Hunter K. Anstine, Director, Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.
Researchers at TUM are not alone in their hypothesis that sleep is a large factor in the development of Alzheimer’s according to The Straits Times. Sleep expert Michael Chee is warning people in their 30s and 40s who may not be getting sufficient sleep, that they may have a better chance of ending up with dementia.
Chee discusses how a 2013 paper showed how adequate sleep is necessary for clearing out metabolite proteins, or “junk,” which develop when the brain is processing energy. Sleep is important because the rate of clearance of metabolites is six times faster during sleep than when awake.
“If you are sleep-deprived, the rate of clearance of beta amyloids is reduced, so you have more junk floating around in the brain,” said Chee.
Pharmaceutical companies have invested billions from Alzheimer charities to produce medicine to clear metabolites but have yet to find a solution.
Because it takes around 10 to 20 years of accumulation of proteins to cause brain damage, it is important to try to get six and a half to seven hours of sleep every night at an early age.