15:55 06 September 2012
Sleep problems have, for the first time, been linked to the early stages of memory loss illness Alzheimer's.
If a new proven study in mice also applies to people, researchers believe that protein clumps (known as plaques) in the brain are key to understanding the illness.
The journal Science Translational Medicine published the study which saw that these plaques first developed when the mice started having disrupted sleep patterns.
Alzheimer's is a disease that commands an early diagnosis for effective treatment, so this research could be a huge breakthrough.
By the time victims start showing problems with memory and clarity of thought, it is too late as the parts of the brain have already been corroded making treatment difficult at best and largely impossible.
However, if the earlier sleep problems are confronted it could show initial stages of Alzheimer's at a treatable stage.
Plaques of beta amyloid form on the brain and these naturally rise and fall over the course of the 24 day in both mice and people. However, the protein forms permanent plaques in Alzheimer's disease.
The breakthrough was when the experiments at Washington University showed that nocturnal mice slept for 40 minutes within each hour of daylight. Yet when the brain plaques formed, sleep went down to just half an hour.
Prof David Holtzman, one of the researchers, was quoted by the BBC: "If sleep abnormalities begin this early in the course of human Alzheimer's disease, those changes could provide us with an easily detectable sign of [the disease]."
"If these sleep problems exist, we don't yet know exactly what form they take, reduced sleep overall or trouble staying asleep or something else entirely."
The findings are not concrete as they may not fully transfer over to humans who have numerous other reasons for disrupted sleep.
Dr Marie Janson, from the charity Alzheimer's Research UK, added to the BBC: "There has already been research linking changes in sleep patterns to a decline in thinking skills, but these results suggest that disrupted sleep may also be a warning sign of Alzheimer's.
"If research confirms specific sleep changes as a possible early marker of Alzheimer's, it could prove a useful strategy for doctors to identify patients at risk of the disease."
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