It is a common problem for many older adults – falling and staying asleep for a full night’s rest. Apart from feeling a tad foggy the following morning, however, and feeling the need for a mid-day snooze to catch up on lost sleep, the effects have seemed negligible. That is, until research recently revealed a potential link between restless sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.
Deep sleep allows the brain to eliminate harmful toxins, along with the amyloid plaques related to Alzheimer’s disease, and it appears that a build-up of these toxins is shown to cause damage to the brains of lab animals. Consequently, a human study is starting to better understand the connection between insomnia and Alzheimer’s and its impact.
By making use of a strong MRI system, the strength of the brain’s signal to clear out toxins can be analyzed: a strong signal in brains whose toxin removal is effective, and a weaker one in people who may be developing Alzheimer’s. The goal will be to determine if a lack of deep sleep does, in fact, affect the likelihood of a future Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and if that’s the case, to figure out the best treatment options to improve quality of sleep.
The difficulty in the human leg of the trial will be in aiding people feel at ease enough in the MRI machine to experience the natural development of sleep, between the noise and small and frequently claustrophobia-inducing quarters. Even so, it’s a much more feasible and less-intrusive option than the laboratory animal study, which included creating a window in the skull and watching the brain together with a strong microscope and laser. And the benefits might be life-changing: identifying individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s disease because of insufficient sleep, and opening doors to fresh treatment plans.
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 currently in place, and the study is slated to begin this year.
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