Scientists Discovered How Sleep Cleans Toxins From Your Brain
Scientists now know how cerebrospinal fluid cleans the brain as you sleep, removing toxins that could cause Alzheimer’s.
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No surprise: sleep is essential to being a functioning, healthy human being. And new research looks even further into how sleep actually helps us maintain clean brains—but what does that mean?
Building on a study from 2013, a team of researchers at Boston University explored what makes sleep so special.
The team got human participants to fall asleep inside an fMRI machine, which allowed researchers to measure the blood oxygen levels in the participants’ brains and show the flux of cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF. The researchers also measured the electrical currents in subjects’ brains using an EEG.
CSF is a watery, clear substance that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. It acts as a little cushion that protects the brain and provides it with nutrients.
Over the years, researchers have discovered more about not only the brain’s sleep phases, but also how those phases are essential to information processing and memory formation.
It’s not just during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep that the brain consolidates information and commits it to long-term memory. Brains do this during nonREM sleep, too. In humans, these two states of sleep—REM and nonREM—alternate throughout the night. NonREM sleep is divided into 3 stages, with the third stage being our deepest state of sleep, called slow wave sleep.
And slow wave sleep in particular is essential to clearing out all the gunk in our brains.
In this Elements, we explore how slow wave sleep helps rid your brain of toxins and what this research could mean for future efforts to combat neurodegenerative diseases.
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Coupled electrophysiological, hemodynamic, and cerebrospinal fluid oscillations in human sleep
“We used accelerated neuroimaging to measure physiological and neural dynamics in the human brain. We discovered a coherent pattern of oscillating electrophysiological, hemodynamic, and CSF dynamics that appears during non–rapid eye movement sleep. Neural slow waves are followed by hemodynamic oscillations, which in turn are coupled to CSF flow.”
Brain may flush out toxins during sleep
“Their results, published in Science, show that during sleep a plumbing system called the glymphatic system may open, letting fluid flow rapidly through the brain. Dr. Nedergaard’s lab recently discovered the glymphatic system helps control the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. “It’s as if Dr. Nedergaard and her colleagues have uncovered a network of hidden caves and these exciting results highlight the potential importance of the network in normal brain function,” said Roderick Corriveau, Ph.D., a program director at NINDS.”
Scientists Now Know How Sleep Cleans Toxins From the Brain
“The study also could have clinical applications for treating Alzheimer’s. Recent attempts at developing medications have targeted beta amyloid. But drugs that looked promising at first all failed once they got into clinical trials. “This opens a new avenue,” says Nedergaard. Instead of trying to act on one particular molecule, new interventions might instead focus on increasing the amount of cerebrospinal fluid that washes over the brain.”
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