New Research Unit at England’s University of East Anglia to Study Possible Link Between Sleep and Dementia

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by Mary Chapman |

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To enable researchers to study prospective links between sleep and dementia, a cutting-edge sleep unit has opened at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England.

While sleeping issues commonly occur in dementia, it’s unclear whether diseases such as Alzheimer’s cause the disturbances, or whether problems sleeping signal early disease onset. Scientists will test whether treating sleep problems early can help delay disease progression.

”We live in an aging society, and sleep disturbances and dementia are two significant health programs in older adults,” said lead researcher Alpar Lazar, PhD, of UEA’s School of Health Sciences, in a press release.

“A symptom of Alzheimer’s is poor sleep. Good sleep is central to maintaining cognitive performance such as attention and memory, as well as general brain health. Sleep deficits have been shown to be early markers in certain brain disorders. But is it Alzheimer’s causing sleep problems, or do sleep problems modulate or contribute to the disease process?”

The team’s initial study will look at whether healthy individuals who may be genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s could be more at risk for sleep problems.

Volunteers will undergo genetic and psychological screening, wear a wrist device to monitor at-home sleep and activity, and keep a sleep journal. After that, in a contemporary, hotel-like setting, they will spend three nights having every move scrutinized by sleep experts. One night must be spent either without sleep or with just several brief naps. Throughout their stay, participants will undergo balance, memory, thinking, and coordination tests.

”It may sound grueling, but we hope it will help us understand more about the links between sleep, the body clock and the genetic risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Lazar, who has won a Seed Award in Science from Wellcome, an independent global organization that helps investigators with innovative concepts. “This will help design future studies investigating specific sleep-related interventions that could potentially slow down the progression of the disease.”

A recent study reported that people 60 and older with disrupted sleep patterns have a higher accumulation of the tau protein — a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — in their brains. It highlights how poor sleep later in life is a potential predictor of brain health decline, and backs the need for noninvasive sleep assessment in early detection of disease in at-risk individuals.

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