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New Berkeley Study Reveals Restorative Sleep may be One Way to Fight Alzheimer's Disease

Regardless of the stage of the disease a person with Alzheimer’s is experiencing, sleep disorders may be interfering with more than just a good night’s rest. 

Scientists are beginning to discover that sleep deprivation is progressively detrimental to the brain as we age.  In fact, recent studies have made a connection between insufficient sleep and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common condition involving short periods during which a sleeping person literally stops breathing.  This results in the lack of adequate oxygenation to the brain.  Sleep apnea has been known to lend itself to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and even dementia. Less severe symptoms of chronic sleep apnea include fatigue, headache, difficulty concentrating, and a lowered immune response.


Insomnia can be caused by several factors, including anxiety, anger, grief, stress, bipolar disorder, or depression.  We have all experienced insomnia from time to time.  The medical definition of insomnia is described as, “having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.” Insomnia is considered chronic if it occurs at least 3 nights per week, for 3 months or longer.  Chronic sleep deprivation from insomnia can lead to anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, and more.

Research Studies

Several studies in the past revealed that sleep disorders (such as insomnia and sleep apnea) disrupt normal cognitive functioning and may even increase the risk of AD. Getting adequate restorative sleep has been shown to be imperative in the process of long-term memory formation.

A recent study, conducted by UC Berkley scientists, published in the Journal of Nature Neuroscience, revealed that beta amyloid (the sticky substance in the brain associated with symptoms of AD), interferes with sleep quality and the formation of long-term memories.
The study examined PET scan results for the presence of beta amyloid in 26 senior adults without clinical signs of dementia. Before sleeping for 8 hours, the study participants were asked to memorize a list of word pairs.  In the morning, the participants were asked to recall the word pairs, and MRI measurements were taken to evaluate brain activity.

Matthew Walker, the senior author of the UC Berkeley study, reported, “The more beta-amyloid you have in certain parts of your brain, the less deep sleep you get, consequently, the worse your memory.” “Additionally, the less deep sleep you have, the less effective you are at clearing out this bad protein. It’s a vicious cycle, but we don’t yet know which of these two factors (the bad sleep or the bad protein) initially begins this cycle,” Walker added.

Study Conclusion

The study pointed to the fact that participants with the highest levels of beta amyloid had the worst quality of sleep and performed worse (below the level of the other participants) on the word pair recall test.  Scientists surmised from the study that beta amyloid in the brain interferes with sleep.  Sleep deprivation subsequently blocks the movement of the memories from the short-term storage area of the brain (the hippocampus) to the long-term storage area—located in the prefrontal cortex. “Sleep is helping wash away toxic proteins at night, preventing them from building up and from potentially destroying brain cells,” Walker said.

Treatment for Sleep Disorders

Perhaps the best news about the UC Berkeley study is that sleep disorders are, for the most part, treatable.  A variety of modalities such as exercise, behavioral therapy, electrical stimulation, and CPAP machines (for sleep apnea) are available for people with sleep disorders.  If you or a person you know with AD has a sleep disorder, consult with the primary physician right away. 

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