Sleep problems are familiar to Alzheimer’s patients and those who care for them. The experience of sleep disorders is quite common for individuals with Alzheimer’s. What has not been entirely clear is which comes first: Alzheimer’s disease or the related sleep disorders.
Experts have suspected that areas of the brain responsible for regulating sleep are damaged in individuals with Alzheimer’s, leading to poor quality sleep. Now, brain scientists at Oregon Health & Science University suggest that a lack of deep, quality sleep may be contributing to susceptibility to Alzheimer’s.
What the research is showing is that during sleep, toxins associated with Alzheimer’s – including amyloid plaques – actually get cleared out of the brain. A buildup of these plaques is believed to be one of the precursors to the development of Alzheimer’s. During periods of sleep deprivation, these toxins can build up in the brain and cause damage. In addition, the plaques seem to develop more rapidly with a lack of sleep.
In periods of deep sleep, the brain’s natural detoxification system appears to kick in, clearing out toxins that include those responsible for forming the Alzheimer’s plaques.
So while sleep deprivation alone may not be solely responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s disease, new evidence is suggesting that the increased development of amyloid plaques during prolonged waking states may lead to a greater susceptibility to the onset of dementia. This understanding could lead to improved therapies and treatments that help at-risk patients experience better quality deep sleep.
For more, you can watch this TED talk delivered by Jeffrey Iliff, a brain scientist at Oregon Health & Science University, one of the lead researchers in the study cited above.