UMKC Professor Studies Connection Between Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease

Successful research on flies furthers advances for humans

Stephane Dissel, Ph.D. fell in love with biological research as an undergraduate in his home country of France thanks to his natural curiosity, his love of the lab and a little luck. His interest in the connection between Alzheimer’s disease and sleep came later.

During his undergraduate studies, Dissel focused on immune response using flies. His current research studies the effect of sleep on flies’ brains and the ability to manipulate the expression of specific genes to affect memory. Sleep ensures that everything gets connected in the right way Dissel says.

“Every animal on the planet has to sleep.” Dissel says. “Depriving people of sleep has been used as a method of torture,” he says. “People start by losing their sanity, but eventually they could die. It’s essential. Every species, every animal sleeps.”

Dissel says sleep is important for the development and the wiring of the brain.

“It helps ensure everything works properly. Even in the animal kingdom, babies sleep more in early life.  But as people age, they tend to sleep less, and their sleep is less efficient.”

“The question is, are these people developing Alzheimer’s because they have sleep problems, or do sleep problems increase with Alzheimer’s?” — Stephane Dissel

Dissel notes that it’s common for people in their 40s and 50s to start sleeping less and less. Sleep during this time becomes less deep, which makes it more likely that people will wake up in the night. He says that most neurodegenerative diseases come with a sleep deficit component.

“The question is, are these people developing Alzheimer’s because they have sleep problems, or do sleep problems increase with Alzheimer’s?” Dissel says. “This is still up for debate. But what I know for sure is that if you can improve the quality of sleep, you can delay or diminish the onset of severe Alzheimer’s.”

He says flies are critical to his research because their brains allow for precise, targeted manipulation. The way that humans sleep, and flies sleep are obviously different, but there are commonalities that allow the research to apply to human conditions.

“At the end of the day it’s about healthy memory– or  plasticity. We are trying to understand which neurons in the brain are underlying the benefits of sleep on plasticity. If we can identify the important cells, we can manipulate, activate or silence them. “

While there is no “cure” for Alzheimer’s on the horizon, Dissel is heartened that there is a lot of funding available for this research. He also notes that there is good news.

“We know from our research that, in a fly that has a genetic mutation that leads to memory impairment, making sleep more efficient enables the brain to find an alternative way to bypass that mutation and restore memory.”

“It’s never quick enough, but little by little we will find a way to prevent the disease.”

He says the means of inducing sleep are less relevant than the sleep itself.

“We can increase the quality of sleep in different ways. We can activate specific neurons in the fly brain which we know are sleep inducing. We’ve also used drugs for pharmaceutical activation, and it leads to the same conclusion. No matter how you do it, increasing sleep in flies makes memory better.”

He notes that part of the challenge with Alzheimer’s disease is that it is complex and controlled by genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.

“You can’t pinpoint a single gene that triggers the disease. In some cases, there are multiple  gene mutations, which can lead to increased risk. There are so many possible causes that lead to this disease, it’s very difficult to find a treatment strategy that is applicable to everyone.”

Still, he is confident in the progress that is being made, though it’s often in incremental steps.

“It’s never quick enough, but little by little we will find a way to prevent the disease. Even if we cannot cure it now, I’d consider it progress if we can delay onset, lessen the severity or improve the quality of life. I’m much more optimistic about this right now because I know it’s doable.”

 

 

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Published: Nov 5, 2021

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