For a wide variety of reasons, many seniors suffer with insomnia symptoms, causing them to struggle with falling asleep and staying soundly asleep. Apart from feeling a tiny bit foggy the next morning, however, along with feeling the need for an afternoon snooze to catch up on lost sleep, the repercussions have seemed minimal. That is, until research recently suggested a potential link between restless sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.
Deep sleep enables the brain to clear out toxins, including the amyloid plaques linked with Alzheimer’s disease, and it appears that a build-up of these harmful toxins is shown to harm the brains of laboratory animals. As a result, a human study is starting to better understand the association and its impact.
With 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 weaker one in those who might be developing Alzheimer’s. The goal will be to see whether deficiencies in deep sleep does, actually, affect the probability of a future Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and if so, to determine the best treatment procedures to improve quality of sleep.
The difficulty in the human leg of the trial will be in helping participants feel comfortable enough in the MRI device to experience the natural levels of sleep, between the noise and crowded and frequently claustrophobia-inducing quarters. However, it’s a lot more achievable and less-intrusive option than the laboratory animal study, which included developing a window in the skull and viewing the brain with a powerful microscope and laser. And the payoffs could be life-changing: identifying people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease as a result of insufficient sleep, and opening doors to brand-new treatment solutions.
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 now in place, and the research is scheduled to start this year.
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