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CAF's David Holtzman's Study Shows Sleep Loss Linked to Increase in Alzheimer's Plaques
May Lead To New Treatments for Devastating Disease
Chronic sleep deprivation in mice with Alzheimer's disease type changes makes Alzheimer's brain plaques appear earlier and more often, researchers lead by Cure Alzheimer's Fund's Dr. David Holtzman at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reported online this week in Science Express. The study was funded in part by Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.
The researchers also found that orexin, a protein that helps regulate the sleep cycle, appears to be directly involved in the increase.
Neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease often disrupt sleep. The new findings are some of the first indications that sleep loss could play a role in the genesis of such disorders.
"Orexin or pathways that it effects may become new drug targets for treatment of Alzheimer's disease," says senior author David M. Holtzman, M.D., a member of Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Research Consortium. "The results also suggest that we may need to prioritize treating sleep disorders not only for their many acute effects but also for potential long-term impacts on brain health."
Holtzman, the Andrew and Gretchen Jones Professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the School of Medicine and neurologist-in-chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, uses a technique called in vivo microdialysis to monitor levels of amyloid beta in the brains of mice genetically engineered as a model of Alzheimer's disease. Amyloid beta is a protein fragment that is the principal component of Alzheimer's plaques.
Holtzman's team noticed that brain amyloid beta levels in mice rose and fell in association with sleep and wakefulness, increasing in the night, when mice are mostly awake, and decreasing during the day, when they are mostly asleep.
A separate study of amyloid beta levels in human cerebrospinal fluid also showed that amyloid beta levels were generally higher when subjects were awake and lower when they slept.
To confirm the link, Holtzman’s team learned to use electroencephalography (EEG) on the mice at the Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology Laboratory at Stanford University. The EEG readings let researchers more definitively determine when mice were asleep or awake and validated the connection: Mice that stayed awake longer had higher amyloid beta levels.
"This makes sense in light of an earlier study in our lab showed that increases in synaptic activity resulted in increased levels of amyloid beta," Holtzman notes. "The brain's synapses may generally be more active when we're awake."
Depriving the mice of sleep caused a 25 percent increase in amyloid beta levels. Levels were lower when mice were allowed to sleep. Blocking a hormone previously linked to stress and amyloid beta production had no effect on these changes, suggesting that they weren't caused by the stress of sleep deprivation, according to Holtzman.
Researchers elsewhere had linked mutations in orexin to narcolepsy, a disorder that is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness. The brain has two kinds of receptors for orexin, which is also associated with regulation of feeding behavior.
When Holtzman's group injected orexin into the brains of the mice, mice stayed awake longer, and amyloid beta levels increased. When researchers used a drug called almorexant to block both orexin receptors, amyloid beta levels were significantly lower and animals were awake less.
Holtzman's team performed long-term behavioral experiments with the mice. They found that three weeks of chronic sleep deprivation accelerated amyloid plaque deposition in the brain. In contrast, when mice were given almorexant for two months, plaque deposition significantly decreased, dropping by more than 80 percent in some brain regions.
"This suggests the possibility that a treatment like this could be tested to see if it could delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease," says Holtzman.
Holtzman notes that not only does the risk of Alzheimer's increase with age, the sleep/wake cycle also starts to break down, with older adults progressively getting less and less sleep. Investigators are considering epidemiological studies of whether chronic sleep loss in young and middle-aged adults increases risk of Alzheimer's disease later in life.
"We would like to know if there are ways to alter orexin signaling and its effects on amyloid beta without necessarily modifying sleep," Holtzman said in hopes of learning more of the molecular details of how orexin affects amyloid beta.
“We are always impressed by the ingenuity of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Consortium scientists. Dr. Holtzman and his team have done remarkable work that could prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for millions of Americans,” said Tim Armour, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Cure Alzheimer's Fund. “We are optimistic that these findings will bring us closer to understanding and finding a cure for this devastating disease.”
Long dedicated to Alzheimer’s research, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund has set forth an ambitious and aggressive national research strategy setting a 10-year goal for the development of effective therapies and discovery of an eventual cure for this devastating disease.
In addition to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, the National Institutes of Health, the NIH Neuroscience Blueprint Center Core Grant, the Alzheimer's Association Zenith Award and Eli Lilly supported this research.