By Paddy Kamen, Publisher, BetterBrainBetterLife.com
Having trouble sleeping? Chronic insomnia is bad for your health, and might contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re an insomniac, your brain may even be losing grey matter.
Two recent research studies highlight differences in the brains of people with sleep problems. A third study breaks new ground in understanding how sleep benefits the brain.
With the frontal lobes controlling executive functions and working memory, among other important processes, a reduction in grey matter in this region is serious, indeed. The study did not investigate the whether the loss of grey matter precipitated the sleep problems or if the opposite was the case. Will improved sleep lead to growth of grey matter, or can brain-enhancing interventions such as neurofeedback or meditation enhance frontal lobe functioning and therefore improve sleep? (Sleep improvement is, in fact, one of the claims for neurofeedback, and meditation has been demonstrated to grow grey matter in the brain.) This research raises many questions and opens up new avenues for inquiry about the relationship between sleep and frontal lobe function.
The second study shows an unexpected relationship between brain plasticity and insomnia. Researchers were expecting to find that non-insomniacs had greater brain plasticity due to the fact that sound sleep helps us to concentrate. They discovered, however, that insomniacs had much great plasticity in the motor cortex of the brain. In the experiment, insomniacs were better able to learn to control involuntary thumb movements than were those without sleep problems.
It may come as a surprise that brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to learn and change in response to the environment) is not always a good thing. It turns out that increased brain plasticity in the motor cortex plays a role in dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, as well as in phantom pain syndrome.
The brain plasticity/insomnia research was led by Rachel E. Salas, M.D., an assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Salas notes, ”Insomnia is not a nighttime disorder. It’s a 24-hour brain condition, like a light switch that is always on. Our research adds information about differences in the brain associated with it.”
It is not clear whether the increased motor cortex plasticity is a cause, or a result of insomnia, or whether it may confer advantages to those who have it.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which delivers magnetic stimulation to the brain in a non-invasive fashion, was used to stimulate the motor cortex of the subjects in this study. Interestingly, TMS might also be an effective way to reduceexcitability in motor cortex neurons, potentially helping to tame the surfeit of plasticity and aid in sleep. TMS has been approved as a treatment for some people with depression by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Chronic insomnia is now classified as a medical condition, and is estimated to affect 15 percent of the American population.
The connection between sleep and healthy brain function is clear. Research funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, discovered that sleep dramatically increases the space between brain cells and activates the brain’s glymphatic system (cleansing system of cerebrospinal and other fluids), increasing the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and the removal of toxins. Researchers, led by Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, injected their mice study subjects with beta-amyloid (the protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease), and discovered that the dangerous protein was cleared out while the mice were asleep, presumably by the increased circulation of cerebrospinal fluid. This is exciting news, emphasizing the importance of sound sleep.
While advances in brain science research, like those mentioned herein offer new hope for insomnia, I advise those who suffer from the condition, as I do (albeit irregularly), to leave no stone unturned in their search for drug-free solutions to this debilitating condition. Please consult medical professionals, and also feel free to contact me via this website.