It is a common problem for many older adults – falling and staying asleep for a full night’s rest. Apart from feeling somewhat foggy the next morning, however, and feeling the need for an afternoon nap to catch up on lost sleep, the actual effects have seemed negligible. That is, until research recently suggested a potential link between restless sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.
Deep sleep allows the brain to remove toxins, which includes the amyloid plaques connected to Alzheimer’s disease, and it looks like a build-up of these harmful toxins is shown to cause damage to the brains of lab animals. Consequently, a human study is beginning to better understand the correlation between dementia and insomnia and its impact.
By using a powerful MRI system, the strength of the brain’s signal to get rid of toxins can be examined: a strong signal in brains whose toxin elimination is effective, and a less strong signal in people who might be developing Alzheimer’s. The objective will be to determine if too little deep sleep does, actually, affect the odds of a future Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and if so, to ascertain the best treatment procedures to improve sleep quality.
The difficulty in the human leg of the trial will be in assisting members feel at ease enough in the MRI device to achieve the natural stages of sleep, between the noise and crowded and frequently claustrophobia-inducing quarters. Even so, it’s a lot more achievable and less-intrusive option than the laboratory animal study, which included making a window in the skull and observing the brain with a powerful microscope and laser. And the benefits could potentially be life-changing: identifying people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease because of inadequate sleep, and opening doors to fresh treatment options.
Per Bill Rooney, director of Oregon Health & Science University’s Advanced Imaging Research Center, “It could be anything from having people exercise more regularly, or new drugs. A lot of the sleep aids don’t particularly focus on driving people to deep sleep stages.”
Funding for human trials is already in place, and the study is slated to start this year.
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