Laura Lewis and her team of researchers have been putting in late nights in their Boston University lab. Lewis ran tests until around 3:00 in the morning, then ended up sleeping in the next day. It was like she had jet lag, she says, without changing time zones. It’s not that Lewis doesn’t appreciate the merits of a good night’s sleep. She does. But when you’re trying to map what’s happening in a slumbering human’s brain, you end up making some sacrifices. “It’s this great irony of sleep research,” she says. “You’re constrained by when people sleep.”
Her results, published today in the journal Science, show how our bodies clear toxins out of our brains while we sleep and could open new avenues for treating and preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
When we sleep our brains travel through several phases, from a light slumber to a deep sleep that feels like we’ve fallen unconscious, to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when we’re more likely to have dreams. Lewis’ work looks at non-REM sleep, that deep phase which generally happens earlier in the night and which has already been associated with memory retention. One important 2013 study on mice showed that while the rodents slept, toxins like beta amyloid, which can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, got swept away.
Lewis was curious how those toxins were cleared out and why that process only happened during sleep. She suspected that cerebrospinal fluid, a clear, water-like liquid that flows around the brain, might be involved. But she wasn’t sure what was unique about sleep. So her lab designed a study that measured several different variables at the same time.
Study participants had to lie down and fall asleep inside an MRI machine. To get realistic sleep cycles, the researchers had to run the tests at midnight, and they even asked subjects to stay up late the night before so people would be primed to drift off once the test began...;