Article image

Sleeping may lower levels of Alzheimer's abnormal proteins

We all love a good night’s sleep, but did you know it could be your brain’s secret weapon against the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease? Researchers have long suspected a link between poor sleep and the progression of this devastating neurodegenerative condition.

Now, a recent study is shedding new light on this connection, suggesting that a common sleeping pill may actually help reduce the buildup of harmful proteins linked to Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s and sleep connection

Alzheimer’s disease is a multifaceted condition with a range of contributing factors. However, a growing body of research is highlighting the crucial role that sleep plays in maintaining brain health and potentially staving off the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers have found a strong link between sleep disturbances and Alzheimer’s disease development. Disrupted sleep often appears as an early indicator, before memory loss and cognitive decline become evident.

This indicates that sleep is crucial for the brain to perform vital cleanup processes. During sleep, the brain helps remove waste, including harmful proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.

The accumulation of these abnormal proteins, primarily amyloid-beta and tau, is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. These proteins tend to clump together, forming toxic aggregates that interfere with normal brain function.

When sleep is disrupted, the brain’s cleaning process falters. This allows harmful proteins to accumulate over time. The buildup of these proteins can contribute to the development of the disease.

Sleeping pills as a solution for Alzheimer’s

In a recent study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, participants who took suvorexant, a widely used insomnia medication, experienced a modest reduction in the levels of amyloid-beta and tau proteins in their cerebrospinal fluid.

This fluid serves as a protective cushion for the brain and spinal cord, and also plays a role in removing waste products from the brain.

However, the results of the study are preliminary because of the small number of participants and the brief period. Despite this, the findings hint at a possible connection. Better sleep, aided by medication, might reduce the buildup of harmful proteins.

This is crucial as amyloid-beta and tau proteins form toxic clumps. These clumps occur in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s, advancing the disease’s progression.

“If you can reduce tau phosphorylation, potentially there would be less tangle formation and less neuronal death,” says neurologist Brendan Lucey, who led the research.

He envisions future studies exploring the long-term effects of sleeping pills on protein levels in older adults, but cautions that we’re not quite there yet.

Brain’s nightly rinse cycle

The brain relies on sleep as a crucial period for maintenance and restoration. During sleep, the brain activates a process often referred to as the glymphatic system, which is responsible for clearing out metabolic waste products that accumulate during wakefulness.

This waste includes the proteins amyloid-beta and tau, which are implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep acts as a nightly cleansing mechanism for the brain, ensuring the removal of potentially harmful substances. When this process is disrupted by sleep deprivation, these waste products, including the Alzheimer’s-related proteins, can build up and contribute to the progression of the disease.

Furthermore, Alzheimer’s disease itself can exacerbate sleep problems, creating a detrimental feedback loop. As the disease progresses, it interferes with the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycle, leading to further sleep disturbances and hindering the brain’s ability to clear out these toxic proteins.

This vicious cycle accelerates the accumulation of harmful substances, potentially accelerating the progression of the disease.

A word of caution

Before you rush out to stock up on sleeping pills, here’s the catch: this study involved healthy adults with no sleep problems, and the effects were only observed over two nights. It’s too early to say whether sleeping pills could offer a long-term solution for preventing or treating Alzheimer’s.

Long-term use of sleeping pills carries its own risks, including dependence and the potential for shallower sleep, which ironically might worsen the protein buildup.

“It would be premature for people who are worried about developing Alzheimer’s to interpret it as a reason to start taking suvorexant every night,” warns Lucey.

Rethinking Alzheimer’s

This study also highlights the evolving understanding of Alzheimer’s disease itself. The dominant theory, that abnormal protein clumps are the primary driver, has recently come under fire. Decades of research targeting amyloid-beta have failed to produce any effective treatments, forcing scientists to re-evaluate their approach.

The effectiveness of sleeping pills in combating Alzheimer’s remains uncertain. However, the study highlights the critical role of sleep in maintaining brain health. It’s essential to practice good sleep hygiene.

Treating sleep disorders such as sleep apnea is vital for brain protection. These measures are important for everyone, no matter their age.

“I’m hopeful that we will eventually develop drugs that take advantage of the link between sleep and Alzheimer’s to prevent cognitive decline,” says Lucey. But for now, he emphasizes, “We’re not quite there yet.”

So, tonight, as you drift off to sleep, remember that your brain is hard at work cleaning house. And while a sleeping pill might not be the magic bullet for Alzheimer’s, a good night’s rest is undoubtedly a powerful tool for keeping your brain healthy and happy.

The study was published in Annals of Neurology.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day