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Last Updated: 05/27/2014 11:08 PST

Can’t Sleep? You Could Develop This Fatal Disease

Haven’t been getting enough sleep lately? New research says just missing one night of sleep could set you up for a potentially fatal disease later in life: Alzheimer’s disease.

The research, which was led by Dr. Jurgen Claassen from the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, found that failing to get enough sleep caused a higher build-up of beta-amyloid, proteins though to increase the risk of dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Although studies in the past have found the same effects in mice, this is the first to investigate its effects in humans.

“We think normal healthy sleep helps reduce the amount of (amyloid) beta in the brain and if your sleep is disturbed this decrease is prevented,” says Claassen. “We think the beta is cleared from the brain or less produced during sleep. We did a complete night of sleep deprivation which is kind of extreme, but it’s similar to a week of partial sleep deprivation.”

The Study

Recruiting 26 adult men described to be middle-aged, Claassen and colleagues first measured their protein levels to gauge the amount of beta-amyloid in their brains to approximate their “normal” protein levels. The men in the study were specifically recruited because their sleep habits were considered normal, making it easier for researchers to see the changes that occurred in their brain when they began sleeping abnormally.

Then researchers split them into two groups: A group kept awake for the entire night and a group that resumed their normal sleeping schedule.

After the night was over, researchers measured their beta-amyloid levels once again to see what changed–and found that those who did not get any sleep had 6 percent higher beta-amyloid levels compared to those who were not sleep deprived.

“Based on this and other studies, it would be good to have people look at their sleep behaviors, but not be frightened themselves if they miss a good night’s sleep,” says Claassen. “We think it’s a disease that has several causes not just one, but we don’t know which ones.”

However, not all experts believe that beta-amyloid is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease, including Columbia University Medical Center co-director Dr. Michael Shelanski. He claims that that this study, while being thorough, doesn’t necessarily prove that beta-amyloid proteins have anything to do with Alzheimer’s, despite the correlation established.

“This is an interesting study,” says Shelanski. “It’s a good study, but it doesn’t really say anything about Alzheimer’s disease other than you should look further and see if the sleep patterns are related to these things.”

Regardless of how you interpret the data, however, all experts agree that not getting enough sleep can have profound effects on the brain–and chances are if you’re not getting enough sleep, chances are your short term memory probably isn’t performing as good.

Bottom line? Sleep really matters–and if you’re not getting a full 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night, you may be putting your brain in some serious trouble down the road.


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