It is a common problem for many older adults – falling and staying asleep for a full night’s rest. Other than feeling a tad foggy the next morning, however, and feeling the need for an afternoon snooze to catch up on lost sleep, the actual repercussions have felt negligible. That is, until a recent study suggested a potential link between chronic insomnia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Deep sleep enables the brain to remove toxins, such as the amyloid plaques related to Alzheimer’s disease, and it appears that a build-up of these toxins is shown to harm the brains of lab animals. Consequently, a human study is launching to better understand the interconnection and its impact.
Through the use of a strong MRI system, the strength of the brain’s signal to get rid of toxins can be reviewed: a strong signal in brains whose toxin elimination is successful, and a less strong signal in people who may be developing Alzheimer’s. The objective will be to assess if too little deep sleep does, in fact, affect the likelihood of a future Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and if so, to determine the best treatment options to improve sleep quality.
The difficulty in the human leg of the trial will be in assisting people to feel comfortable enough in the MRI machine to achieve the natural stages of sleep, between the noise and cramped and sometimes claustrophobia-inducing quarters. However, it’s a much more feasible and less-intrusive option than the laboratory animal study, which involved creating a window in the skull and watching the brain with a strong microscope and laser. And the payoffs may potentially be life-changing: identifying people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease because of inadequate sleep, and opening doors to new 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.”
Financing for human trials is currently in place, and the research is slated to start this year.
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