Students, professor find connection between sleep apnea and dementia

Three Wheaton researchers — Instructor of Applied Health Science O. Michael Bubu M.D., M.P.H., C.P.H. and juniors Megan Hogan and Amanda Shim— conducted and presented a study that found a connection between sleep loss and dementia. The trio began conducting research last Spring and presented the study in July at the Alzheimer Association’s International Conference.
When sleep cycles are interrupted, amyloid builds up in the brain. In a healthy brain, amyloid protein fragments produced by the body are deconstructed and destroyed. Alzheimer’s disease causes these proteins to instead “accumulate to form hard, insoluble plaques,” according to the Bright Focus Foundation, a nonprofit supporting Alzheimer’s research. While amyloid hasn’t been proven to directly cause Alzheimer’s, Hogan said, “There are modifiable risk factors [to Alzheimer’s disease], and sleep apnea is one of them.”
The study specifically focused on cognitively normal older adults, according to Shim. “We determined individuals with [Sleep-Disordered Breathing] are at a higher risk of developing [Alzheimer’s disease],” Shim explained. “This disease is extremely difficult to diagnose before clinical symptoms arise due to tissue damage in the brain. By identifying major risks factors such as SDB, we can delay the onset of [Alzheimer’s] or at least lessen its effects.”
While the study shows a correlation between sleep problems and brain disease, it remains unclear whether people who have trouble sleeping are more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease or if people in early stages of the disease have difficulty sleeping. Either way, the study suggests  a strong connection.
Hogan and Shim were part of only a few undergrad students present. “It was a really unique experience to be one of the only undergrad students,” Hogan remarked.
Shim said that attending the conference was an “intimidating but incredible experience.” “As an undergraduate student, I definitely felt out of my league being surrounded by brilliant researchers and clinicians, but I learned so much more about the ways to detect AD, causes of AD, and treatment of AD,” Shim said.
The Wheaton students believe slowing the process of plaque buildup in the brain may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in patients. As for research into a more permanent solution for Alzheimer’s, Hogan said, “We’re more looking at the rate of decline, but there’s going to have to be some kind of drug intervention to reduce the level of plaque buildup in the brain.”
In addition to its correlation to Alzheimer’s Disease, the study may have other applications for dementia. “According to our results, treating SDB could potentially lessen the progression of cognitive decline. From what I gathered at the conference, there are many more challenges to be conquered in terms of AD,” Shim said. “However, there is also a great deal of confidence that one day a cure will be discovered.”

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