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New research could unveil the link between sleep deprivation and the development of Alzheimer's.

New research could unveil the link between sleep deprivation and the development of Alzheimer's.

While sleep deprivation is associated with several negative health effects, new research could potentially reveal one of the most threatening of them: Alzheimer's. Jeffrey Iliff, a brain scientist at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, will lead a team of researchers to conduct a human trial on how lack of proper sleep influences the development of Alzheimer's.

In an interview with NPR, Iliff said that sleep and Alzheimer's have long been linked, and many patients with Alzheimer's also suffer from sleep disorders. Previously, researchers believed that Alzheimer's affected the areas of the brain that regulate sleep, but newer information suggests that there is more to it than that.

The first clarifying piece if information came in 2009, when researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that the sticky amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's develop more quickly in the brains of sleep-deprived mice. Then, in 2013, Iliff and his team were part of a study published in JAMA Neurology that found how sleep deprivation sped up the development of Alzheimer's in animals by denying the brain a necessary cleansing process.

"The fluid that's normally on the outside of the brain, cerebrospinal fluid it's a clean, clear fluid it actually begins to recirculate back into and through the brain along the outsides of blood vessels," Iliff explained.

This process is called the glymphatic system, and it allows the brain to clear out toxins, including the ones that are known to form Alzheimer's plaques. While this discovery is important, there is no evidence that this process is affected in the same way for humans.

To conclusively deduce if sleep deprivation would have the same effect on human brains, Iliff and his team are setting out to create a new study, but replicating their methods won't be easy. In their mice trial, the researchers observed the glymphatic system by looking through a window in the skull and using a powerful laser and microscope. For the human trial, Iliff and his colleagues will have to find a safer, less invasive way to observe that same process.

One of the world's most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which currently resides in a basement at OHSU, may be used to accomplish just that. According to Bill Rooney, the director of OHSU's Advanced Imaging Research center, this is a highly sensitive MRI unit that should be able to detect the start of the glymphatic system. With this machine, the researchers should theoretically be able to view the signal in the brain that indicates toxin removal. Rooney said that signal in young, healthy brains should be "robust," and a weaker signal would indicate an aging brain, or a brain that is more susceptible to Alzheimer's.

While the equipment should be effective, the researchers are posed with the challenge of finding test subjects who are willing and able to fall asleep inside a small and noisy MRI machine. Rooney said they will have to make the space as comfortable as possible so they can follow participants through all stages of sleep.

While the study hasn't even begun yet, this research could provide groundbreaking information that could shape future treatments of Alzheimer's and offer better methods of prevention.

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