“During sleep… your brain has time to wash away all the toxins that have built up throughout the day. Continually interrupting sleep may give it less time to do that.” – Megan Hogan

Sleep and the brain

Before we delve any further, let’s consider this statistic: in 2013, 40 percent of Americans did not get the recommended amount of sleep per night (7-8 hours.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled insufficient sleep as a public health issue. Worse, inadequate sleep negatively impacts how your brain functions.

Dr. Richard Shane, a behavioral sleep specialist, states: “MRI imaging shows a lack of sleep reduces blood flow to areas of the brain that control higher level thought processes. It impairs your problem-solving abilities, slows your cognitive speed, and decreases constructive thinking skills and logical reasoning.”

In other words, inadequate sleep reduces your brain’s effectiveness in nearly every way imaginable.

John Peever, director of the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of Toronto, when asked about what sleep does, replied “Sleep serves to reenergize the body’s cells, clear waste from the brain, and support learning and memory. It even plays vital roles in regulating mood, appetite and libido.”

The Effects of Irregular Sleep On Your Brain

Clearing waste from the brain is an essential mechanism of sleep. During this phase, cerebrospinal flows through our brain and flushes out all kinds of toxins. One particularly dangerous type of chemical cleansed during this process is beta-amyloid – a toxic protein.

Megan Hogan, a co-author of the study, explains her team’s findings:

“Using PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans over the course of three years, we studied amyloid building and were able to compare the brain scans of individuals with obstructive sleep apnea and those who did not have the disease.”

Hogan and her team were especially interested in a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. Sleep apnea disrupts sleep through “repeated episodes of (under-breathing) and apnea (not breathing) during sleep.”

OSA occurs in around 30 percent of women and 20 percent of men. OSA is also directly linked to increased levels of beta-amyloid. Beta-amyloid, as it turns out, is found in high concentrations within another demographic: Alzheimer’s patients.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Per the Alzheimer’s Association, “Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.”

Here are some sobering facts about Alzheimer’s disease:

  • It is the most common form of dementia, “a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life,” accounting for up to 80 percent of all dementia cases.
  • A progressive disease, symptoms get worse over time. Initially, the person experiences mild memory problems. Later in life, most patients are rendered incapable of having a conversation or living autonomously.
  • It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • Alzheimer’s does not have a cure (though some recent research has shown promise.)
  • The most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s are difficulty remembering new information, disorientation, mood and behavior changes, confusion, paranoia, and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.

Irregular Sleep and Alzheimer’s

Per the Alzheimer’s Association, two abnormal substances – plaques and tangles – are responsible for the accelerated depletion (killing) of the brain’s nerve cells.

A type of plaque discovered to be widespread in the brains of Alzheimer’s patient’s post-mortem is beta-amyloid. Scientists believe that beta-amyloid, along with a protein called tau (rhyming with “wow”) block the “communication among nerve cells and disrupting processes that cells need to survive.”

As mentioned, the same type of plaque is seen in patients suffering from irregular sleeping patterns.

What This All Means

While more studies are needed, there is – at the very least – a correlation between abnormal sleeping patterns and Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroscientists are nearly universal in agreeing that apnea patients – who possess high concentrations of beta-amyloid within the brain – have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Simple deduction would conclude, then, that chronic sleeping problems increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.

The study at Wheaton College was not the first to make this discovery; though they did expand on previous works.

Over four years ago, the same researchers responsible for discovering the glymphatic system, our brain’s waste disposal mechanism, reached the following conclusion:

“(This study’s) findings have significant implications for treating ‘dirty brain’ diseases like Alzheimer’s. Understanding how and when the brain activates the glymphatic system and clears waste is critical…”

This most recent study may bring us one step closer. One thing is for certain: proper sleep is crucial to brain health.

If you experience problems sleeping, please seek the advice of a medical professional.

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