Disrupted sleep may predict Alzheimer's risk

Brain scan

Amyloid is a protein that can fold and form into plaques while tau is a protein that forms into tangles. However, the researchers also stated that not all participants involved in the study had spinal fluid abnormalities.

Amyloid plaques develop in parts of the brain that play a role in visual recognition and memory, causing symptoms of the disorder.

Scientists from the Britain's Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology have for the first time, clearly pictured what the deposits typically seen in a person with Alzheimer's disease look like.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, followed and surveyed 101 subjects with an average age of 63.

There's evidence that amyloid plaques disrupt slow-wave sleep, the authors wrote, which is "important for feeling refreshed".

Worldwide, about 50 million people live with dementia - the most common type being Alzheimer's disease.

This is because they had either a parent with the disease or being a carrier of a gene that increases the risk for Alzheimer's disease called apolipoprotein E (APOE).

"This study and others in the field suggest that sleep may be a modifiable risk factor for Alzheimer's disease", said senior researcher Barbara Bendlin.

Tangles are created by damaged tau, a protein responsible for cell stability and structure.

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Those who reported worse sleep quality, more sleep problems and daytime sleepiness had more biological markers for Alzheimer's disease in their spinal fluid. This could explain why people with more Alzheimer's markers were more likely to report poor sleep, they added.

"Overall, this study confirms the relationship between early Alzheimer's disease and sleep disturbance", Ju said, "and (it) expands - in terms of both time and symptoms - the window in which sleep-wake problems can be assessed for and treated, with the hope of reducing the risk of dementia due to Alzheimer's disease".

Dr Doug Brown, director of research at the charity Alzheimer's Society, said: "This study adds to previous evidence that poor quality sleep may be associated with signs of Alzheimer's".

Bendlin said it's important to identify modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer's because delaying Alzheimer's disease in people by as little as five years could reduce the number of cases in the next 30 years by almost 6 million and save $367 billion in health care costs.

While there's no shortage of research examining how abnormal tau and amyloid beta proteins function, it's been unclear just how much artificial samples assembled in the lab differ from the structures that form in the lab.

One limitation of the study was that sleep problems were self-reported.

For example, there was no association seen between people who had sleep apnea and markers for Alzheimer's in their spinal fluid.

Finding out what causes Alzheimer's could be critical to stopping the disease as early as possible, before irreversible damage has been done.

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