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A new study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine has reportedly found a link between disruptions to sleep cycles and the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the study analyzed the overall cognitive abilities of laboratory mice subjected to jet lag-like conditions by regularly shortening their awake time schedules.

The study sought to answer a type of “chicken-or-the-egg” dilemma: “It’s whether the jet lag accelerates the development of learning and brain chemistry problems, or whether Alzheimer’s triggers these things earlier,” said UCI Biomedical Engineering Professor Gregory Brewer, the study’s leader.

While researchers generally agree sleep is vital to the healthy development of memory and cognitive abilities, Brewer said the precise reason why is not clearly understood.

“People have theories, and I can tell you mine,” Brewer said. “The brain and the rest of your body work to repair themselves from damage during the day. If your body’s properly cycling through the stages of sleep and not active, my theory is that that facilitates cellular repair.”

The experiment

The study compared four sets of mice:

• “Normal” mice without sleep disruptions;

• “Normal” mice subjected to artificially-induced sleep disruptions;

• Mice with Alzheimer’s-like mutations without sleep disruptions;

• Mice with Alzheimer’s like mutations subjected to artificially-induced sleep disruptions.

For the mice exposed to sleep disruptions, controlled lights in their habitats were offset by eight hours every three days over a period of two months, creating jet lag-like conditions similar to “taking a trip to Eastern Europe” every three days, Brewer said.

The irregular lighting cycle altered the mice’s circadian rhythm, a biological phenomenon shared in humans that helps regulate our tendency to wake up and fall asleep at similar times each day.

At the end of the two months, each set of mice were subjected to the Morris Water Maze test, a classic tool used to measure cognitive ability and memory in laboratory mice.

Morris Water Maze Alzheimer's Research

Mice with properly-functioning brains learn the location of a hidden platform submerged in water and find it more quickly after repeated trials.

As it turns out, the Alzheimer’s mice exposed to jet lag effects displayed much greater learning impairments than all other sets of mice.

Both sets of mice exposed to jet lag had lower levels of a brain chemical called glutathione, with the Alzheimer’s mice showing the greatest deficiency, which can cause problems related to metabolism and inflammation in the brain.

The importance of healthy sleep for individuals with Alzheimer’s

While the results could shed some new light on what causes Alzheimer’s, the results seem to fall in line with previous research that shows shift workers - who typically have irregular sleep schedules - are more likely to have poor health.

Brewer encourages people who might be worried about the onset of Alzheimer’s to practice good “sleep hygiene,” echoing advice from the National Sleep Foundation that encourages healthy sleep habits for people with Alzheimer’s.

In other words, if you or someone you know cares for an individual with Alzheimer’s who has difficult sleeping, be sure to:

• Expose them to sunlight shortly after they wake in the morning;

• Maintain a regular schedule for meals and falling asleep/waking up;

• Avoid substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine;

• Create an environment for sleeping that promotes comfort, safety, and tranquility;

• Help them avoid lying in bed during waking hours.

It’s unclear if regular, healthy sleep can lessen or reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in people who are already struggling with its effects; likewise, there is no evidence that shows sleep aids (such as melatonin) are useful for promoting better cognitive ability in AD patients, either, Brewer said.

But, given the results of his research, it’s safe to assume that a chronically unhealthy sleep schedule could put you and your loved ones at greater risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“Caregivers say that individuals with Alzheimer’s have good days and bad days,” he said. “My idea is that good days might be linked to better sleep.”

Many of our Heroes specialize in Alzheimer’s care for the elderly.

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