SleepingWhat’s the sound of the brain detoxing?  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

Let’s talk about the only exercise you can do without moving a muscle: sleeping. While not an active mental exercise like solving crossword puzzles, sleeping is extremely important for brain health. Getting a good night’s rest is one of the simplest and most effective things you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

One simple way to appreciate the importance of sleep is to ask what happens when you don’t get enough. As many of us know all too well, sleep deprivation leads to decreased mental acuity, impaired memory, decreased attention span, and decreased performance on essentially all measures of cognitive health. Severe sleep deprivation (e.g., no sleep for several days) can even lead to full-blown psychosis, complete with auditory and other sensory hallucinations.

Sleeping is perhaps the most mysterious of all brain functions. There are myriad theories about why we sleep, but there does not appear to be a single, clear-cut consensus even among sleep researchers as to the fundamental biological reason why.

While there may not be a simple reason why we sleep, we do know that sleep is critical for two very important processes that are hugely relevant to AD. The first such process is memory formation. The formation of memories can be broken down into different stages. The first stage is acquisition, which refers to the initial formation of memories. And the last stage is consolidation, which refers to the process by which memories are made permanent. As anyone who has had to remember a phone number can attest, it is possible to acquire a (short-term) memory without it ever being consolidated into permanent one. A wealth of scientific evidence has confirmed that sleep is essential for the process of consolidating memories and turning them into long-term ones [1].

The second process relevant to AD that depends critically on sleep was uncovered only recently. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center, led by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, found that the movement of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)—the liquid in which the brain is constantly bathed—increases dramatically during sleep [2]. This is important, becase the CSF is responsible for both delivering essential nutrients to the brain and for removing toxic by-products, like the beta-amyloid protein that accumulates excessively in AD. Indeed, these researchers specifically found that the clearance of beta-amyloid was increased as a result of the sleep-dependent increase in CSF movement they discovered. Put another way, the brain “takes out the trash” while  you sleep.

The lesson is clear: sleep is vital, both for the formation of long-term memories, as well as for the removal of beta-amyloid—two processes that are critically important for preventing AD.

So keep your brain healthy—get enough sleep!

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  1. Stickgold R. Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature. 2005 Oct 27;437(7063):1272-8. Link
  2. Xie L, Kang H, Xu Q, Chen MJ, Liao Y, Thiyagarajan M, O’Donnell J, Christensen DJ, Nicholson C, Iliff JJ, Takano T, Deane R, Nedergaard M. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science. 2013 Oct 18;342(6156):373-7. Link