Deep sleep deprivation may be one of the factors contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers are currently planning to test this hypothesis.
It has long been proven that this progressive brain degeneration disease tends to cause sleep disruptions, alongside other more heavily publicized symptoms, such as memory loss, personality changes, impaired cognitive skills, communication problems, hampered decision-making and difficulty completing daily tasks.
In recent years however, scientists have alluded that lack of adequate sleep may not be just a sign of this form of dementia, but also one of its actual triggers.
For example, in 2009 experts at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri have revealed that beta-amyloid buildups, which are considered toxic to brain cells, tend to appear much faster among laboratory mice that haven’t enjoyed adequate rest.
Another animal study from 2014 has suggested that chronic sleep deprivation results in reduced learning capacity, impaired memory and diminished cognitive performance.
Similarly, in 2013, a group of neuroscientists including Jeffrey Iliff, from Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University, discovered the process through which lack of sleep results in the accumulation of harmful plaque.
More precisely, it appears that during slow-wave sleep (commonly known as deep sleep), an extensive detoxification of the brain occurs, through which harmful substances are flushed out.
In this third stage of the non-rapid eye movement sleep, colorless cerebrospinal fluid that envelops the brain and serves as a cushion following head trauma, starts moving more freely, pushing toxins, metabolic waste and other pathogens away.
According to researchers, this intricate cleansing mechanism involving what has recently been identified as the glymphatic system, basically allows the brain to heal itself, lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia.
So far, the process has been observed on laboratory mice, by employing high-tech lasers and microscopes after implanting cranial windows into the animals’ skulls. This procedure allowed researchers to analyze the central nervous system and prove the existence of the glymphatic system.
Now, the objective is to try and achieve the same result on human being as well. It seems like the most effective way of doing that is through a state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging device, found at the Advanced Imaging Research Center, of the Oregon Health & Science University.
This innovative unit has the potential to clearly identify when the process of neural cleansing has begun, by signaling it as soon as cerebrospinal fluid is set in motion.
Namely, strong evidence of such transformations in salt molecule density is indicative of the fact that the glymphatic system is functioning correctly, ejecting plaque and other harmful compounds from the brain.
In contrast, a slowed-down process suggests that brain degeneration is more likely, since toxins are building up more freely.
Researchers are hoping that they will be able to test the importance of deep sleep in a trial involving human volunteers this year.
The challenge will be to identify participants that can rest in the MRI machine, which tends to be filled with various unpleasant sounds, and can also be considered nightmarish by those suffering from claustrophobia, due to its limited confines.
If this endeavor succeeds, the trial may provide physicians with a groundbreaking way of identifying those who are more at risk of developing dementia.
The discovery might even pave the way for reducing the prevalence of this disorder: provided that lack of deep sleep is proven to be a factor causing brain degeneration, it will be easy to devise treatments targeting rest deprivation, which will eventually also prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, at least among some patients.
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