Dementia, which is typically caused by Alzheimer’s disease, affects an estimated 850,000 people in the UK alone. There is mounting evidence that the disorder is caused by decreased cerebral blood flow, which damages and eventually kills brain cells. A new study conducted on mice, has shed new light on brain activity, notably blood flow, during the REM stage of sleep. Study authors believe the findings could pave the way for the development of new therapies.
In both mice and humans, REM sleep is characterised by rapid eye movements and vivid dreams.
During this phase the arms and leg muscles become temporarily paralysed, to prevent you from acting out your dreams.
Over the course of a lifetime, the amount of time a person spends in the REM stage of sleep diminishes progressively.
This holds significance for Alzheimer’s patients, as blood flow and neural activity peak during the REM sleep stage.
The researchers measured electrical activity in the brain to look for differences in blow flow during REM sleep, non-REM sleep and wakefulness.
Professor Hayashi added: “We were surprised by the results.
“There was a massive flow of red blood cells through the brain capillaries during REM sleep, but no difference between non-REM sleep and the awake state showing that REM sleep is a unique state.”
The team then disrupted the rodent’s sleep, which resulted in ‘rebound’ REM sleep – a stronger form of REM sleep – that compensated for the disruption.
The findings build on existing research that has linked a lower percentage of REM sleep and a longer time to get to the REM sleep stage to a greater risk of dementia.
This is believed to be due to increased blood flow during REM sleep which could help clean out metabolic brain waste that builds up during the day.
In fact, researchers concluded that for every percent reduction in REM sleep there was a nine percent increase in the risk of dementia.
According to the researchers, such findings could pave the way for the development of new treatments, for conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
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