Here’s even more evidence that we should all get our sleep: it not only leaves us feeling rested, but also allows our brains to clean themselves of harmful toxins, says a recent story on National Public Radio. What’s more, this cleaning process may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
While you’re sleeping, your brain is cleaning itself
During sleep, according to the story, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found. “It’s like a dishwasher,” Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and an author of the study in the journal Science, told NPR.
The study’s results appear to offer the best explanation yet of why animals and people need sleep. If this proves to be true in humans as well, it could help explain a mysterious association between sleep disorders and brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, NPR’s story states.
Dr. Nedergaard and a team of scientists discovered the cleaning process while studying the brains of sleeping mice. They noticed that during sleep, the system that circulates cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and nervous system was “pumping fluid into the brain and removing fluid from the brain in a very rapid pace,” she said.
The team ascertained that this increased flow was possible in part because during sleep, the brain cells of the mice actually shrank, making it easier for the fluid to circulate. When they woke up, their brain cells enlarged again and the flow between cells slowed to a trickle, almost like “opening and closing a faucet,” Nedergaard explained. “It’s that dramatic.”
Harmful waste proteins actually get washed away
Nedergaard’s team, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, had previously shown that the cerebrospinal fluid was carrying away waste products that build up in the spaces between brain cells. This process is important because the substances that are getting washed away during sleep are waste proteins that are toxic to brain cells, Nedergaard said. She added that this could explain why most of us don’t think clearly after a sleepless night, and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person.
Given the benefits of this extraordinary process, it begs the question: why doesn’t the brain wash itself all the time? Nedergaard thinks it’s because the cleaning takes a lot of energy. “It’s probably not possible for the brain to both clean itself and at the same time [be] aware of the surroundings and talk and move and so on,” she stated.
Link between brain-cleaning and Alzheimer’s
Although this brain-cleaning process has been observed in rats and baboons, it has yet to be studied in humans. Nevertheless, the study’s conclusions could bring about a new understanding of human brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, because one of the waste products removed from the brain during sleep is beta amyloid, protein pieces that form sticky plaques associated with the disease.
That’s not a coincidence, according to Nedergaard. “Isn’t it interesting that Alzheimer’s and all other diseases associated with dementia are linked to sleep disorders,” she told NPR.
Researchers who study Alzheimer’s say Nedergaard’s research could help explain a number of recent findings related to sleep. “Beta amyloid concentrations continue to increase while a person is awake,” Randall Bateman, a professor of neurology Washington University in St. Louis, said in the story. “After people go to sleep, that concentration of beta amyloid decreases. This report provides a beautiful mechanism by which this may be happening.”
Bateman went on to say that the research could hopefully lead to new ways to prevent Alzheimer’s. “It does raise the possibility that one might be able to actually control sleep in a way to improve the clearance of beta amyloid, and therefore help prevent amyloidosis that we think can lead to Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.
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