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July 14, 2017

The Link Between Sleep Loss and Alzheimer’s

The Link Between Sleep Loss and Alzheimer’s

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New research indicates a link between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s

New studies conducted by Stanford University & The Washington Medical School has indicated a link between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s. Studies suggest an increased production of the protein amyloid-beta heightens the risk of Alzheimer’s developing.

What is amyloid-beta?

Amyloid-beta is a brain protein that is normally linked to the development of Alzheimer’s. Beta amyloids come from a larger protein found in the fatty membrane surrounding nerve cells. The protein is sticky in consistency and is known to form clumps—or plaque—that block the communication of brain cells. 

An increase in amyloid-beta

If—as the research suggests—there has been a link found between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s because of the build-up of amyloid-beta, this could potentially be detrimental to a person’s mental health.

Research has shown that high levels of amyloid-beta do return to a normal once a regular sleep pattern has been restored. However, prolonged sleep deprivation can cause a build-up of the brain plaque to occur. This has two main effects: the killing of neurons in the brain and eventual memory loss.

Amyloid-beta is not the only protein that has shown a link between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s— a chemical known as tau has also been studied.

What is tau?

An increased amount of tau—which is an important protein that the brain needs to function—can be dangerous. Several nights of prolonged and disturbed sleep can cause an increase in tau and create ‘tangles’ in the brain. In the medical community, these are known as neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs)—these tangles are often considered one of the defining markers of Alzheimer’s disease.

How was the research conducted? 

The link found between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s was accomplished by conducting research using the analysis of spinal fluid as well as sleep monitoring technology in order to assess chemical differences in the brain depending on the subject’s sleep pattern.

Using 17 healthy adults between the ages of 35 and 65 with no history of sleep or cognitive issues, the study analysed their sleep patterns to observe the changes in their chemical behaviour. Although consciously unaware, the participants were all manipulated by the sound of loud beeps at regular intervals during sleep cycles within a sleep lab over the course of two weeks.

Once the experiment was completed, each participant underwent a spinal tap (extraction of spinal fluid) in order to measure the amount of both amyloid-beta and tau that was present. Initial findings immediately showed that after one night of disturbed sleep there was an increase of 10 percent in amyloid-beta levels in the brain. Those who had participated in the study for over a week showed a spike in their levels of Tau.

Professor Yo-El Ju of Washington University stated that the main concern was with those with chronic sleep problems. As the research has concluded, it’s those who’s levels of amyloid-beta and tau increase over a longer period of time that are most at risk.

Researchers have concluded that while they cannot fundamentally state that improvements in your sleep will reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, at present they have found that there are significant factors that indicate a link between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s—specifically the proteins that are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.