These days, the link between poor sleep and worsening disease is one that researchers are exploring with gusto.
In a recent study, scientists found that using sleeping pills to get some shut-eye could reduce the build-up of toxic clumps of proteins in fluid that washes the brain clean every night.
The researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found people who took suvorexant, a common treatment for insomnia, for two nights at a sleep clinic experienced a slight drop in two proteins, amyloid-beta and tau, that pile up in Alzheimer’s disease.
Though only short and involving a small group of healthy adults, the study is an interesting demonstration of the link between sleep and the molecular markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep disturbances can be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease that precedes other symptoms, such as memory loss and cognitive decline. And by the time the first symptoms develop, levels of abnormal amyloid-beta are almost peaking, forming clumps called plaques that clog up brain cells.
Researchers think promoting sleep could be one avenue to stave off Alzheimer’s disease, by allowing the sleeping brain to flush itself of leftover proteins and the day’s other waste products.
While sleeping pills may help in that regard, “it would be premature for people who are worried about developing Alzheimer’s to interpret it as a reason to start taking suvorexant every night,” said neurologist Brendan Lucey, of Washington University’s Sleep Medicine Center, who led the research.
The study spanned just two nights and involved 38 middle-aged participants who showed no signs of cognitive impairment and had no sleep issues.
Using sleeping pills for prolonged periods is not an ideal solution, however.