As we learn more about potential ways to ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as we age, from exercise to diet to web surfing to marijuana use, a new study makes the case that getting a good night’s sleep just might be the most important thing we can do.
Our brain cells produce toxic waste products each day as they work. The new study, published this week in the journal Science, shows that while we sleep, the brain literally flushes out this gunk. The self-cleaning process, which scientists observed in resting mice, is a powerful illustration of the medical importance of sleep. Researchers had suspected that this self-cleaning went on in our heads each night, but the new study put the process, and its intensity, in far clearer focus. For example, the team witnessed that when the mice slept, brain cells actually shrunk in size, expanding the spaces in between them by as much as 60 percent and facilitating the flushing of waste.
“It’s like opening and closing a faucet,” said University of Rochester neurosurgeon Maiken Nedergaard, who directed the study.
At minimum, the research highlights the potential importance of regular sleep in slowing dementia, as well as the possible neurological risks of consistently getting too little sleep. When we stay up until late into the night, we may be preventing our brains from flushing toxins effectively. This may also explain why we can feel uncertain or cranky when we are sleep-deprived and perhaps why migraines and seizures appear to be exacerbated by poor rest.
A year ago, Nedergaard’s team identified the network for flushing waste from the brain and named it the glymphatic system. During this cleansing, cerebrospinal fluid circulates through brain tissue, carrying waste matter into the bloodstream toward the liver, where it is detoxified. Similar systems, she noted, have been detected in the brains of dogs and baboons. Neuroscientists now widely assume that this self-cleaning takes place in humans as well, but the next step will be to directly observe the process.
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