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Researchers Find that Extra Sleep May Offer Improvement For Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative condition that robs people of their memories, as well as of a number of other important cognitive functions. It accounts for approximately two thirds of all reported cases of dementia, and is thought to impact between 21 and 35 million people globally. Its causes are poorly understood and treatment options are limited, as once the process begins it seems impossible to stop or reverse, though some medications have been shown to slow its progression. Now researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis believe that they may have found a way to improve the memories of those who have been diagnosed with this disease.

According to Paul Shaw, PhD and professor of neurobiology, he and his colleagues conducted studies on three different groups of fruit flies that were modified in order to create a variety of memory problems. Though a different genetic intervention was given to each group of flies, all three groups were modified so that they were no longer able to create new memories, a common characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients. One of the three groups was specifically provided with a memory condition that closely resembled that of Alzheimer’s, while another was modified to prevent the encoding of memories; the third group was given too many brain connections, which also makes it difficult for memories to be formed. The researchers then increased each group’s sleep quantity, either by stimulating brain cells to induce sleep, increasing the production of a protein associated with sleep, or medicating them with a drug that simulates the brain’s chemical sleep process. Each group was provided with the rough equivalent of an extra three to four hours of sleep per day for humans, and were then tested for their ability to make new memories.

What was discovered was that the extra sleep allowed each of the three groups to create new memories. It appeared to make no difference whether the extra sleep came as a result of the protein, the drug, or the brain stimulation, and in all three cases the sleep did not make a change to the disabled gene that prevented memories from being formed. Instead, it seemed that the extra rest gave the brain a way to work around the genetic problem. According to lead author Stephane Dissel, a senior scientist working with Shaw, “In all of these flies, the lost or disabled gene still does not work properly. Sleep can’t bring that missing gene back, but it finds ways to work around the physiological problem.”

The group has no explanation as to exactly what it is that sleep does to change the brain’s abilities, but their findings, which were published in the journal Current Biology, are offering hope for future treatment options for those with degenerative brain and memory conditions.

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