Scientists may soon diagnose Alzheimer’s using sleep patterns

Doctors could spot Alzheimer’s years early by scanning your sleeping brain for tell-tale changes, study suggests

  • Poor sleep has long been linked to higher risks of many disease, including Alzheimer’s 
  • As people age, the quality and amount of sleep they get tends to decline 
  • New UC Berkeley research reveals that changes to two kinds of sleep brain waves are linked to the buildup of Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles 
  • The researchers think sleep analysis could allow doctors to identify people at risk for Alzheimer’s and start preventive care years before the disease sets in

Years of poor sleep can lead to changes in brain waves while you rest – and looking at those shifts in neural activity while you rest could help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s, new research suggests. 

While sleep’s exact purpose is still a mystery to scientists, most suspect it serves as a nightly cleaning for the brain (among other functions). 

And even a single short night has been linked to higher levels of Alzheimer’s-related plaques in the brain, suggesting that, without sleep, these toxic waste products don’t get swept away. 

Now, University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) scientists have found that as we age, our ‘sleep waves’ get out of sync, which may cause two markers of Alzheimer’s disease to collect in the brain. 

As we age, two forms of brain waves key to sleep fall out of sync and we have fewer of them. These changes may predict the development of Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles (file)

Lead study author Dr Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley and ‘Sleep Diplomat’, often warns that the US is in the midst of a ‘sleep deprivation epidemic’ – and that it’s hurting our overall health. 

It’s not recognized by the National Institutes of Health or the World Health Organization, but it’s certainly a common problem. 

More than one third of Americans get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night we’re supposed to. 

And that’s linked to higher risks of many diseases and even an early death – including greater odds of being among the one in 10 who will develop Alzheimer’s. 

Both sleep and Alzheimer’s are poorly understood, even by the foremost experts. 

But our best working theories suggest that tau tangles and beta-amyloid plaques in the brain are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. 

When researchers at UC Berkeley examined brain scans adults and compared them to survey results about sleep patterns and disruption, they saw two links between how sleep patterns change over time and the development of these two disease-signalling brain structures. 

During a night of sleep, several types of waves of activity occur in the brain. 

In a healthy, younger adult getting a full, uninterrupted rest, two of these – bursts of activity in the brain called sleep spindles, and bigger, slow waves of activity – are synced up. 

But as we age, sleep quality inevitably degrades and these two types of activity start to go a little haywire, and become discordant. 

Analyzing sleep patterns in their cohort of study subjects, the researchers saw that the fewer big slow brain waves people experienced while sleeping, the more tau built up in their brains. 

Meanwhile, if they had a decrease in sleep spindles, more beta-amyloid collected, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.  

This pair of phenomena are like a one-two punch for Alzheimer’s risks. 

Furthermore, if people got less and less sleep as they aged from their 50s to 70s, they were more likely to have higher levels of both plaques and tangles down the road. 

It’s a scary predictor for the 35 percent of Americans that are underslept – but the researchers believe there’s an upside. 

If someone is struggling to sleep through the night or get the ideal seven hours, monitoring their brains for these particular patterns of sleep wave-changes might act as a warning sign for Alzheimer’s disease. 

In that event, preventive care could be started immediately to improve sleep and perhaps do some sorely needed mitigation of Alzheimer’s risks.  






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