Researchers don't know if higher levels of beta-amyloid showed up because sleep deprivation stopped the brain's routine cleaning process, or because the brain produced more of this protein as a result of being awake for so long.
The study, led by Dr Ehsan Shokri-Kojori, was published on Monday in the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sure enough, people who got less sleep had slightly higher baseline levels of beta-amyloid, although it's impossible to say if this is due to their sleep habits specifically. The latest findings also showed that while sleeping, the neurons get shrunk by size and make spaces within the sets of cells to permit the waste materials to be removed from the brain.
The results: Nineteen out of 20 participants, whose ages ranged from 22 to 72, had higher beta-amyloid in their brains after their night of exhaustion compared to their well-rested baselines.
Beta-amyloid is linked to Alzheimer's, but is it a cause or effect of the disorder?
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For one of the nights, the participants were allowed a restful period of sleep, but they were deprived sleep on the other night.
"The Australian sea lion experiences regular (about weekly) episodes of two to three days of complete sleep deprivation foraging in the sea for fish and then recovers lost sleep with three to four days of sleep and relaxation on the beach", says Lack. Cognitive outcomes were measured by the Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale-cognitive subscale (ADAS-cog) and the Clinical Dementia Rating Scale Sum of Boxes (CDR-sb).
Scientists believe that insomnia is one of the causes of Alzheimer's disease. Insomniacs accumulates an excessive amount of beta-amyloid in the brain.
The hippocampus plays a key role in memory while the thalamus acts as a relay centre for motor and sensory nerve signals. It is not clear yet whether disrupted sleep is just a symptom of the condition, or if it contributes to it. Good sleep is fundamental to proper brain function, but whether sleep deprivation, or disruption, plays a major role in the onset of dementia is still yet to be proven.