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Lack of sleep affects everybody’s ability to recall information, focus and more. Ask anyone who has pulled an all-nighter. If getting a good night’s slumber makes someone sharper, could getting more sleep help improve memory for patients with Alzheimer’s disease? According to new research, it could.
A new study, published in Current Biology and conducted by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, shows the value of the right kind of sleep. It also shows that improving someone’s sleep may actually reduce the severity of the person’s Alzheimer’s symptoms.
The team used fruit flies for their research, because the flies’ brain waves regulate sleep in a similar way to the way human brains do. They divided their insect study participants into three groups so they could see the affect of their sleep on flies with different neurocognitive impairments. One group of flies had a gene disabled that stimulated their brain connections to somewhat scramble their memories. In a second, the researchers disabled a gene in the flies to create a condition that resembled Alzheimer’s disease. The final group of flies had a gene tampered with that caused them to have memory problems.
Next, the research team “increased the amount of sleep” each group of flies got using three different artificial means. They stimulated the brain cells involved in getting a good night’s rest, administered a drug to activate the chemical messenger involved in getting sleep, and they increased the production of a protein associated with slumber. The researchers estimate that the additional amount of “sleep” the flies received would be the equivalent of a human getting an extra 3 to 4 hours’ sleep daily for at least two straight days.
The scientists found that the extra hours of slumber (even simulated) have a marked impact on the flies. All three groups of flies could make new memories better, which implies that any of the means used to get the flies more “sleep” helped their brain activity and cognitive functioning.
In all the flies, a gene did not work properly, explained lead author Stephane Dissel, PhD, a senior scientist at the university’s medical school. “Sleep can’t bring that missing gene back,” she noted, “but it finds ways to work around the physiological problem.”
Though the team is not sure of the exact brain wave mechanisms involved, they hypothesize that getting additional rest stimulates the brain cell connections that encode memories and important information; it also reduces brain connections that deal with worthless information. As a result, the person getting more sleep is sharper and not distracted by little things.
The research study’s leader Paul Shaw, PhD, noted how much extra sleep helps with cognitive functionality. The associate professor of neurobiology at the Washington University School of Medicine pointed out that, “It has to be the right kind of sleep.” Shaw acknowledged that they do not know “how to induce this kind of slumber in the human brain yet,”but the team recognized that their research that shows how sleep could improve memory capabilities could eventually help Alzheimer’s patients.
By Dyanne Weiss