Can’t Sleep? Loss of Neurons Could be to Blame

It’s probably no surprise to hear that many older adults suffer from insomnia and other forms of sleep disruption, but Michael Kennedy’s review of a University of Toronto study that seeks to explain why older adults can’t sleep acknowledges that experts don’t know the underlying cause. Andrew Lim, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Toronto believes that the study provides “evidence that loss of neurons in a particular region of the brain that controls sleep may be an important contributor to insomnia in many older individuals.”

Why are seniors losing sleep?

Clifford B. Saper, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, co-authored the study that was published in Brain, a Journal of Neurology. According to Saper, a person in his 70s typically gets about one fewer hour of sleep per night than a person in his 20s. The Saper lab has been studying insomnia for years, and in 1996, they “first discovered that the ventrolateral pre optic nucleus, a key cell group of inhibitory neurons, was functioning as a ‘sleep switch’ in rats, turning off the brain’s arousal system to enable animals to fall asleep.”

Saper explains that sleep loss and disrupted sleep are associated with a variety of health issues, raining from cognitive dysfunction, to increased blood pressure, to a tendency to develop type 2 diabetes. Thanks to the University of Toronto study, Saper says, “it now appears that loss of these neurons may be contributing to these various disorders as people age.”

Alzheimer’s impacts sleep due to loss of neurons

Researchers analyzed older patients who do not have Alzheimer’s as well as Alzheimer’s patients for the study. They found that “the fewer the neurons, the more fragmented the sleep became. The subjects with the largest amount of neurons (greater than 6,000) spent 50 percent or more of the sleep time in prolonged periods of non-movement while subjects with the fewest ventrolateral preoptic neurons (less than 3,000) spent less than 40 percent of their nights in extended periods of sleep.”

Upon deeper analysis of the study’s results, researchers determined that among Alzheimer’s patients, much of the sleep impairment appeared to be related to the number of ventrolateral preoptic neurons that had been lost. Lim points out that, “given recent evidence that sleep disruption may predispose to or potentiate the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” the findings of the study could lead to prevention or the slowing of the progression of Alzheimer’s disease some day.

Can you protect your neurons…or grow new ones?

Wondering what causes people to lose neurons, and whether there is anything that you can do about it? Well, a blogger for Mental Health Daily wants you to first keep in mind that most people lose brain cells over the course of their lifetime. The blog also includes an extensive list of things that kill brain cells, if you want to protect yourself from the potential loss of neurons. Here is just a sampling of the things the blog post suggests you avoid to prevent the loss of neurons:

  • Concussion
  • Head banging
  • Whiplash
  • Severe dehydration
  • Sleep apnea
  • Amphetamine abuse
  • Bath salts
  • Cigarettes/tobacco products
  • Steroids
  • Pesticides
  • Aspartame
  • Chronic/severe stress

The brain may have the ability to repair itself and grow new brain cells via neurogenesis. While there has been a debate over the reality of neurogenesis in adults, a recent paper suggests that new neurons do form in the adult human striatum. Several researchers concluded that neurons are added “throughout life in the hippocampus and olfactory bulb. One area where neuroblasts that give rise to adult-born neurons are generated is the lateral ventricle wall of the brain.” Their research shows that “in adult humans new neurons integrate in the striatum, which is adjacent to this neurogenic niche.” And, the Mental Health Daily blogger lists 11 ways to grow new brain cells, including running, curcumin (which is found in the spice Turmeric), sexual experience, Omega 3 fatty acids, and more.

Keep your brain active to promote regeneration

Dr. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School also explains that “the brain has much more regenerative potential” than doctors were taught years ago in medical school, “but the regeneration doesn’t happen on its own. Keeping our brains active is one way to make it happen.” Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications suggests six ways to keep your mind sharp at any age.

  • Keep learning
  • Use all your sense
  • Believe in yourself
  • Prioritize your brain use
  • Repeat what you want to know
  • Space it out

Overall, Harvard Health Publications reminds seniors that to prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia, they should adopt some basic healthy habits – staying physically active and socializing, not smoking, limiting alcohol to one drink a day, eating a balanced diet, and keeping their minds sharp. The benefits include lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of diabetes, and now reducing the risk of insomnia. It’s definitely worth a try, for those seniors who are tired of losing so much sleep… and being tired!

Images via Flickr by Cristiana Gasparotto and Ars Electronica

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