Dementia Clues: What Your Sleep Says About Your Brain

As seen on Channel 7 News: 

Whether you’re a night owl, a day napper or a sleep walker, your bedtime habits could hold vital clues about the health of your brain, experts say.

Australian sleep and brain specialists are investigating how sleep patterns – particularly when and how much you sleep - can predict if you will develop Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or mental health problems later in life.

The trailblazing work by NeuroSleep, the NHMRC Centre for Translational Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology in Sydney, will use its important findings to develop new sleep therapies that can slow neurodegeneration, allowing Australians to live longer, healthier lives. 

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that sleep patterns can predict dementia and other brain conditions long before more obvious symptoms of disease show themselves,” explains NeuroSleep Chief Investigator Professor Ron Grunstein.

“For instance, there’s very clear evidence that people who act out their dreams and thrash about in their sleep, have a very high risk of developing Parkinson’s or other neurodegenerative diseases in the next 15 years,” he says. “If these same patients also have small handwriting, a poor sense of smell and difficulty discriminating shades of colour then their disease risk is higher still,  with an 65 per cent chance of dementia in the next three years.”

With Alzheimer’s, the body clock tends to go haywire, leaving people awake overnight. “We think this probably reflects a loss in the secretion of melatonin - the sleep hormone driving circadian rhythm,” Professor Grunstein says. “By testing the timekeeping of the body clock and melatonin secretion we may be able to predict Alzheimer's in the future.”

NeuroSleep, run from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, is also investigating how broad sleep patterns relate to brain health. “We know that both sleeping too little or too much, or sleeping at a time the body should be awake, are all linked to accelerated brain ageing and dementia,” the sleep scientist says. “There are a number of studies suggesting short or fragmented deep sleep also has dementia links.”

This new knowledge is not meant to alarm. “It’s useful to understand these patterns and if you’re concerned, seek an assessment from a sleep specialist,” Professor Grunstein says. “But we don’t want you to race out and buy a Fitbit to start monitoring your sleep. Instead focus on developing good sleep habits that get you snoozing at the same time each night. Your brain will thank you for it.”

NeuroSleep was awarded $2.5 million in funding over five years from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) scheme. The NHMRC and Australian research Council has funded five research fellows from early to senior levels to work in the centre. Since its launch in 2014, the centre has been at the forefront of sleep and brain research. Using a unique collaborative model, NeuroSleep has everyone from physicists to pharmacists, psychiatrists to nutritionists working together to improve sleep and brain health simultaneously. To date, there have been several landmark discoveries, including finding links between early dementia and the snoring condition obstructive sleep apnea, and developing a test to identify those vulnerable to falling asleep while driving.

Through the centre’s clinical arm, Woolcock NeuroSleep Clinic, discoveries are channeled into cutting-edge new treatments for patients suffering from sleep and neurological disorders. As NeuroSleep clinician, Neurologist Professor Simon Lewis, explains, Australians get to reap the rewards of exciting research findings. “Our unique structure means we can move quickly, making bold new discoveries in the lab that our patients get direct benefits from in our clinical sessions down the corridor.” 

Professor Lewis says sleep and the brain are intimately intertwined. “You can’t sleep without a functioning brain and basically without sleep, you don’t have a functioning brain,” he says. “Damage to one causes damage to the other and so it make sense that we both study and treat the two in tandem.”

With humans living longer than ever, it is important to understand how sleep accelerates the ageing process, Professor Lewis says. “We also live in a more complex world with stress, greater urbanisation and longer commutes, noise, and light pollution all challenging sleep,” he says. “Understanding how sleep is influenced by stress, work and the external environment is important in helping us improve human health.”

Please find more information about the Woolcock NeuroSleep Clinic here. 

Watch the full Channel 7 News story here.