The small study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that losing just one night of shut-eye could increase the brain's level of beta-amyloid, a protein that's associated with Alzheimer's disease. Researchers took PET scans of the brains of 20 healthy participants ages 22 to 72—both after a good night's sleep and after being deprived of sleep—and found that after a lack of quality zzz's, the amount of beta-amyloid increased by about 5 percent in the regions of the brain vulnerable to Alzheimer's (the right hippocampus and thalamus).
"This research provides new insight about the potentially harmful effects of a lack of sleep on the brain and has implications for better characterizing the pathology of Alzheimer's disease." —Dr. George F. Koob
Though the researchers said they did not look into whether the beta-amyloid increases would go back down after a night of quality sleep, the findings nonetheless serve evidence supporting the long-term health value of prioritizing snooze time. "This research provides new insight about the potentially harmful effects of a lack of sleep on the brain and has implications for better characterizing the pathology of Alzheimer's disease," George F. Koob, PhD and director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which funded the study, said in a press release. Still, the study was so small that researchers said it merely demonstrates that sleep deprivation might cause a beta-amyloid increase; further studies are needed, especially since many scientists believe spikes in beta-amyloid also lead to sleep deprivation (so they are unsure of causality).
This isn't the first time sleep and Alzheimer's have been linked. Just last month, another study looked at whether "excessive" daytime sleepiness could be an indicator of the risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers found that 22 percent of the participants who said they experienced daytime sleepiness at the beginning of the study had increased levels of beta-amyloid throughout the seven-year-long period.
Even though there's still more research to be done, a connection between brain health and sleep definitely exists. So make your REM cycle a priority, folks: It could keep you healthier now and down the road.
Find out why Mariah Carey originally thought her bipolar disorder was a sleep-related problem. Or, check out the natural sleep supplements that could fight off your insomnia.
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