Study looks to improve brain’s self-healing during sleep

While we sleep, our brains reprogram themselves as a means of self-cleansing. Scientists have developed a mechanism to help enhance this natural process, which, via support of the National Department of Defense, will be tested for the first time in a series of human experiments.

The initial experiment will include 90 participants tested in three different locations: the University of North Carolina, the University of Washington School of Medicine, and a location combining Oregon Health & Science University and the Brain Electrophysiology Laboratory (BEL). The results are scheduled to be available in the autumn of 2022.

While investigating brain activity, researchers identified critical metabolic pathways that regulate this detoxification during sleep. This cleansing system referred to as the ‘brain glymphatic system’ is essential for the removal of toxic waste components from the brain. This detoxification only occurs during good quality sleep.

As a result of sleep deprivation, these critical mechanisms are hindered, resulting in poor mental health. This can cause symptoms such as impaired muscle coordination, difficulty concentrating, sluggish speed of processing, difficulty with decisiveness, and memory issues.  Additionally, the risk of developing future brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease is increased.

For individuals in the military, these neurological issues can be even more detrimental due to short windows of sleep and lack of quality sleep. The Department of Defense funds creative research efforts like this particular study which has set them back $4.3 million over the course of three years.

“Our approach is to continue to validate novel imaging approaches of the human glymphatic system while assessing novel technology to improve glymphatic clearance and cognitive function,” said co-principal investigator Dawn Kernagis, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery at UNC School of Medicine.

“If this works, it would have major implications for service members and potentially anyone with diagnosed sleep dysfunction. It could also have implications for people with other neurological conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias.”

As part of the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium (MTEC), a cooperation between business and academics, this study, dubbed “Augmented Neurophysiology of Sleep and Performance Readiness,” aims to safeguard, heal, and enhance service member’s health and quality of life via collaboration with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Center and other Department of Defense entities in the health field.

Years have passed since the identification of the glymphatic system by Jeffrey Iliff, PhD, who served as co-principal research scientist on the project, and Maiken Nedergaard, MD.  It was considered one of the leading discoveries in 2013 by Science Magazine.

As a psychiatry and life science professor at Washington School of Medicine, Iliff explained the simple biology behind the process in a TED Talk that elicited 5 million viewers. He explained that during sleep, cerebrospinal fluid, which protects the brain and aids in the removal of various toxins, passes over brain cells. According to Iliff and other experts, glymphatic activity may be the key to sleep’s healing powers. Because of this, any abnormal sleep patterns or lack of sleep alters this process, leading to the buildup of toxins which cause mental impairment. Furthermore, this insufficient cleansing may cause more permanent brain damage.

“Improving glymphatic function, whether pharmacologically or by means of a device, could improve the cognitive effects of acute sleep deprivation and chronic sleep restriction,” said Iliff. “Our lab’s research over the past eight years on brain-waste clearance in animals has helped define glymphatic biology. Now we hope to see if we can use what we’ve learned to help people overcome poor or interrupted sleep and the brain dysfunction that follows.”

The Augmented Neural Oscillation Driver (AugNOD) may help to optimize the glymphatic system during sleep.This new technology, developed by Don Tucker, PhD, project co-principal investigator and professor emeritus at the University of Oregon as well as the CEO of BEL, is a wireless headband that can be worn before the most restorative sleep phase known as the deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) phase to assess and enhance the detoxification  process.

Scanning and processing systems, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have also been created and verified by the research group as a means of detecting the flow of cerebrospinal fluid via the glymphatic system. The University of Washington School of Medicine has created new scanning technology that can improve diagnostic imaging without the use of contrast agents. The researchers will also be capable of detecting the circulation of fluids inside and around the brain and any blood pressure variations thanks to comprehensive simulations undertaken at the University of Montana. Both of these phenomena are strongly associated with glymphatic circuit function.

“Beyond evaluating potential technology for improving glymphatic function, the resulting imaging and modeling approaches that will be validated in this study could be incredibly impactful for the neuroscience and neurological research fields given the limited options for studying a potentially critical system for short and long-term brain health,” said Kernagis.


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