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‘A Rinsing of the Brain.’ New Research Shows How Sleep Could Ward Off Alzheimer’s Disease


Each of us carts around a 3-lb. universe that orchestrates everything we do: directing our conscious actions of moving, thinking and sensing, while also managing body functions we take for granted, like breathing, keeping our hearts beating and digesting our food. It makes sense that such a bustling world of activity would need rest. Which is what, for decades, doctors thought sleep was all about. Slumber was when all the intricate connections and signals involved in the business of shuttling critical brain chemicals around went off duty, taking time to recharge. We’re all familiar with this restorative role of sleep for the brain–pulling an all-nighter or staying awake during a red-eye flight can not only change our mood, but also affect our ability to think clearly until, at some point, it practically shuts down on its own. When we don’t get enough sleep, we’re simply not ourselves.

Yet exactly what goes on in the sleeping brain has been a biological black box. Do neurons stop functioning altogether, putting up the cellular equivalent of a Do Not Disturb sign? And what if a sleeping brain is not just taking some well-deserved time off but also using the downtime to make sense of the world, by storing away memories and captured emotions? And how, precisely, is it doing that?

In the past five years, brain researchers have begun to expose a hidden world of chemical reactions, fluids flowing into and out of the brain, and the busy work of neurons that reveal the sleeping brain is as industrious as the waking one. Without good-quality sleep, those critical activities don’t take place, and as a consequence, we don’t just feel tired and cranky, but the processes that lead to certain diseases may even get seeded. One of the reasons we sleep, it now seems, might be to keep a range of illnesses–including cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and other dementias–at bay. As Adam Spira, a professor in the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, puts it, “Sleep really should not be seen as a luxury or waste of time. People joke that they’ll sleep when they’re dead, but they might end up dead sooner if they don’t sleep.”

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