ST. LOUIS (CBS) — New research shows that sleep deprivation can speed up the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis also suggests that proper sleep can help maintain good brain health.
The study included research of both mice and humans. In both, a lack of sleep was found to produce increased levels of the protein tau, which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Later studies on the mice found that a lack of sleep also sped up the spread of clumps of toxic tau in the brain, which could cause brain damage and dementia.
“The interesting thing about this study is that it suggests that real-life factors such as sleep might affect how fast the disease spreads through the brain,” said David Holtz, senior author and head of the Department of Neurology. “We’ve known that sleep problems and Alzheimer’s are associated in part via a different Alzheimer’s protein – amyloid beta – but this study shows that sleep disruption causes the damaging protein tau to increase rapidly and to spread over time.”
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Researchers sampled brain and spinal cord fluid from eight people after a normal night of sleep and again after a night when they were kept awake for the entire night.
After the sleepless night, researchers say tau levels increased by nearly 50 percent in humans.
Even in healthy people, tau is normally found in the brain, but when it clumps together, it can damage nearby tissue and promote mental decline.
“We don’t know yet whether getting adequate sleep as people age will protect against Alzheimer’s disease,” Holtzman said. “But it can’t hurt, and this and other data suggest that it may even help delay and slow down the disease process if it has begun.”