Get Your Zzzz’s: Sleep Deprivation & Alzheimer’s

September 29, 2009 at 1:35 pm 6 comments

Dog Tired!  Image by mmagallan on Stock.Xchng For quite some time now, researchers have known that sleep is important to the brain.  It’s pretty obvious even to regular people, like us – without enough sleep, we quickly start mentally stumbling around, losing focus and dulling our cognitive functions.

Researchers have also known that Alzheimer’s patients often have difficulty sleeping – but they’ve always  assumed that the poor sleep was caused by the disease. But a new study suggests that poor sleep habits may actually contribute to the process that leads to developing Alzheimer’s in the first place.

Here’s what happens:

As we age, a protein known as amyloid-beta builds up in the brain, sometimes forming itself into little clumps and tangles.  Although we don’t exactly know how, these tangles (or plaques)  seem to damage neurons, eventually causing them to die off.  When the damage becomes widespread, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear.

Where does sleep come into this?

When researchers at Washington University in St. Louis measured the amounts of amyloid- beta in the brains of mice, they found something interesting; the levels of the protein found in the wee-mousey brains didn’t seem to change, but the levels found in the fluids of the brain fluctuated significantly – and it was in direct relationship to how long the mice had been awake or asleep.

The levels gradually rose while the mice were awake, and dropped when the mice slept, suggesting that the protein accumulates during waking hours, but is somehow flushed during sleep.   Tests performed on healthy young people showed a similar relationship between wake/sleep cycles an the levels of amyloid-beta in their spinal fluid, so it seems likely that the same process is involved in humans, as in mice.

So it’s quite possible that instead of sleep problems being simply a symptom of Alzheimer’s, it may be a contributing cause.   And it may also help explain part of the accelerating spiral of symptoms – as the disease progresses, it becomes harder to sleep, which in turn allows levels of amyloid-beta to rise, eventually forming tangles and causing more damage to the brain.

This is all very preliminary, but still promising.  If getting enough sleep could prevent the levels of damaging proteins from developing in the first place, then perhaps the amyloid tangles and the associated damage can be prevented – and the impact of Alzheimer’s could be greatly reduced.

So get your Zzzz’s!

Sleep not only helps keep your cognitive functions strong and healthy in the short term,  may turn out to be a powerful part of Alzheimer’s prevention strategy, as well!

Don’t miss out on  Dakim’s “Give Thanks for Loved Ones” Contest, running now through November 5th.  You could win a $2500 brain fitness system for a senior friend or family member!

Entry filed under: Sleep. Tags: , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Kirkeberg  |  October 8, 2009 at 8:28 am

    Hi, Tori,
    Good to see you writing. This is a huge subject for boomers and beyond. Sleep is one of the links in a chain of factors contributing to a healthy life. Take it from a struggling sleeper. I see it going something like thes – no sleep, exercise becomes less enticing, no exercise, fewer endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, leading to depressed periods, with lead to … Well, it goes on and on.
    Great article.

    • 2. Tori Deaux  |  October 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm

      Hi Mike!

      Yes, I’m still hanging in here. Sleep is one of my personal brain-challenges, too. I’m very sensitive to it, and when I’m struggling, I definitely feel the effects (like today!) Thanks for dropping back buy, always good to see your contributions!

  • 3. amanda  |  October 9, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Hi, how are you?
    I just wanted to swing by and compliment you on a great post. Alzheimer’s is such a devastating disease and yet remains such a mystery. I applaud your efforts in spreading awareness and information. In fact, I liked your blog post so much that I linked to it in my “Preventing Alzheimer’s: What Have You Heard?” blog post on WEGO Health. You can check out my blog post referencing yours here!

    Hope you’ll come by our community of Health Activists some time to see what we’re about. 🙂


    • 4. Tori Deaux  |  October 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks for the compliment and link, Amanda, always appreciated! And I will accept your invitation and drop by soon 🙂

  • 5. Erin  |  October 11, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Brain fitness exercises, from what I have learned, can help to prevent or at least slow down the Alzheimer’s onset. Hopefully with more studies, we’ll continue to learn more.

  • 6. candice  |  October 12, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Absolutely! Sleep is very important! But is even more important is our brain fitness! we need to keep our minds well rested as well as well stimulated!


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About This Blog

A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
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Authored by Tori Deaux
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