Sleep disturbances can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Many people eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s start experiencing difficulty falling and staying asleep years before cognitive problems such as memory loss and confusion emerge. It’s a vicious cycle: Alzheimer’s disease involves changes to the brain that disrupt sleep, and poor sleep accelerates harmful changes to the brain.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified a possible way to help break that cycle. A small, two-night study has shown that people who took a sleeping pill before bed experienced a drop in the levels of key Alzheimer’s proteins — a good sign, since higher levels of such proteins tracks with worsening disease. The study, which involved a sleeping aid known as suvorexant that is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for insomnia, hints at the potential of sleep medications to slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, although much more work is needed to confirm the viability of such an approach.
The study is published April 20 in Annals of Neurology.
“This is a small, proof-of-concept study. It would be premature for people who are worried about developing Alzheimer’s to interpret it as a reason to start taking suvorexant every night,” said senior author Brendan Lucey, MD, an associate professor of neurology and director of Washington University’s Sleep Medicine Center. “We don’t yet know whether long-term use is effective in staving off cognitive decline, and if it is, at what dose and for whom. Still, these results are very encouraging. This drug is already available and proven safe, and now we have evidence that it affects the levels of proteins that are critical for driving Alzheimer’s disease.”