Stud­ies link poor sleep to risky Alzheimer’s pro­tein

Another rea­son to get enough shut-eye


To sleep, per­chance to... ward off Alzheimer’s? New re­search sug­gests poor sleep may in­crease peo­ple’s risk of Alzheimer’s dis­ease, by spurring a brain-clog­ging gunk that in turn fur­ther in­ter­rupts shut-eye.

Dis­rupted sleep may be one of the miss­ing pieces in ex­plain­ing how a hall­mark of Alzheimer’s, a sticky pro­tein called beta-amy­loid, starts its dam­age long be­fore peo­ple have trou­ble with mem­ory, re­searchers re­ported Mon­day at the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence.

“It’s very clear that sleep dis­rup­tion is an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated fac­tor,” said Dr. Matthew Walker of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, who pre­sented data link­ing amy­loid lev­els with peo­ple’s sleep and mem­ory per­for­mance. “It’s a new player on the scene that in­creases risk of Alzheimer’s dis­ease.”

Sleep prob­lems are treat­able - and a key next ques­tion is whether im­prov­ing sleep can make a dif­fer­ence in pro­tect­ing se­niors’ brains.

“Sleep is a mod­i­fi­able fac­tor. It’s a new treat­ment tar­get,” Walker said.

Enough sleep is im­por­tant for good health gen­er­ally - seven to eight hours a night are rec­om­mended for adults. When it comes to the brain, sci­en­tists have long known that peo­ple who don’t get enough have trou­ble learn­ing and fo­cus­ing. And any­one who’s cared for some­one with de­men­tia knows the nightly wan­der­ing and other sleep dis­tur­bances that pa­tients of­ten suf­fer, long thought to be a con­se­quence of the dy­ing brain cells.

The new re­search sug­gests that sleep prob­lems ac­tu­ally in­ter­act with some of the dis­ease pro­cesses in­volved in Alzheimer’s, and that those toxic pro­teins in turn af­fect the deep sleep that’s so im­por­tant for mem­ory for­ma­tion.

“It may be a vi­cious cy­cle,” said Dr. Miroslaw Mack­iewicz of the Na­tional In­sti­tute on Ag­ing, who wasn’t part of the new work.

Walker’s team gave PET scans to 26 cog­ni­tively healthy vol­un­teers in their 70s to mea­sure build-up of that gunky amy­loid. They were given words to mem­o­rize, and their brain waves were mea­sured as they slept overnight.

The more amy­loid peo­ple har­boured in a par­tic­u­lar brain re­gion, the less deep sleep they got - and the more they for­got overnight, Walker said. Their mem­o­ries weren’t trans­ferred prop­erly from the brain’s short­term mem­ory bank into longert­erm stor­age.

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