Getting enough sleep
While exercise and new experiences may help protect the brain during waking, another study published Tuesday in the journal Neurology shows that the unconscious hours may be just as important, even for people in their early twenties.
A small exploratory study on 15 men, all 22 years-old, in Sweden, found that reducing just one-night total sleep deprivation increased the level of tau protein in the blood by 17.2 percent. Tau is a protein linked to Alzheimer’s in the brain when it’s functioning abnormally. On a night of normal sleep, tau increased by 1.8 percent.
Jonathan Cedernaes is a neuroscientist at the Uppsala University in Sweden and the study’s senior author. He tells Inverse that this isn’t a large enough increase to be immediately concerning. Rather, it points to the idea that the brain has a “rhythm” that sets healthy levels of tau release, and that this system can be tinkered with in young healthy people.
Cedernaes explains that later in the evening we may have naturally high tau release. During sleep, the brain may “clear out” the tau that’s formed during that period. We already know that the brain does have a type of “rinse cycle” during sleep, during which cerebrospinal fluid washes through the brain, clearing it of harmful proteins.
“If we instead stay awake when we should normally sleep, this may result in competing processes, as we have sustained release of tau when it should normally not be released any longer,” Cedernaes says. “This could result in altered clearance of tau from the brain, and this may then spill over into the circulation, which is what we measured here.”
These results are just the beginning, and we don’t know how results like Cedernaes’ will play out in the long-term. For now, they point to the idea that sleep may be a major part of keeping the brain resilient against the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s.
“The most important message may be more and more evidence indicates that sleep is a factor to consider in the context of lifestyle factors that influence the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
But take note — there’s no predetermined trajectory
These old-school techniques may not feel particularly futuristic, but we shouldn’t let their low-tech nature obscure their effectiveness. They may not be the futuristic cure-all, but they can prolong lucidity to experience moments that could otherwise be lost.
“There may be no ‘predestined trajectory’ when it comes to brain health, and hopefully these data empower them to make healthy lifestyle choices that could help support their brain health longevity every day,” says Casaletto.