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Recent research may have uncovere the reason Alzheimer's and other brain diseases seem both to be caused by and to cause serious sleep disturbances and loss of sense of time.

My dad developed full-blown dementia about the age of 80. I was living with him at the time. One of the most frustrating aspects of the disease for him, and for me, was his loss of his sense of time.

One Saturday morning my father, who still drove his car until the last three months of his life, pulled into carport angry. "Not one single person showed up for church today," he groused, "not even the preacher."

We weren't Seventh Day Adventists. We were both members of a church that met on Sunday. I gently pointed out to my father that the day was Saturday, not Sunday, and he told me in unequivocal terms I was wrong. I showed him the newspaper. He insisted it had been delivered the day before. A friend called. My father told his friend he was wrong about what day it was, too.

As my father's disease progressed, he also lost his ability to distinguish between night and day. He would doze off in his easy chair about 7 every evening, and then bound out of his chair 2 or 3 hours later, cooking breakfast. Dad would then want to stay up all night.

As the condition got even worse, my father would be sharp, his old self, in some early morning hours and around midnight every night, and totally out of it in the middle of the day, when relatives and doctors and caregivers would come in to see him. I would insist that he still had more than a few flashes of his former personality--and he did even on the day he died--but most people would only see an old man who drooled and coud not talk.

My father suffered a condition called Lewy body dementia. Another way of describing what was going on with him was that he suffered a "broken clock" in the brain. Many other conditions of mental deterioration are essentially caused by the inability of cells in the brain to keep time, doctors tell us.

Clocks and Cellular Cleanup Crews

Dr. Erik Musiek, an MD/PhD who teaches neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, says that the brain performs a tune-up every morning. During the hours leading up to noon, the brain produces enzymes that neutralize free radicals. In turn, this protects neurons from becoming coated with tangled proteins that short circuit electrical transmissions and eventually kill the cell.

Without an internal clock to tell the cells of the brain to do their clean-up work, free radicals of oxygen--which multiply especially fast in the presence of sugar--damage the linings of neurons and eventually cause tissue destruction. While there actually is small production of new neurons in the brain throughout life, the brain cannot repair itself fast enough, without this daily enzymatic process, to prevent significant destruction.

Not Just Sleep, Sleep at the Right Time

Dr. Garret FitzGerald, a physician who chairs chairman of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, directed Dr. Musiek's earlier research with mice bred to lack the gene that enables the internal clock of the brain. These mice were no more sleep-deprived than any other mice, but they tended to sleep equally at night and during the day. FitzGerald and Musiek discovered that when mice sleep turned out to be as important as how much they sleep.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • McClung CA. Mind your rhythms: an important role for circadian genes in neuroprotection. J Clin Invest. 2013 Dec 2. 123(12):4994-6. doi: 10.1172/JCI73059. Epub 2013 Nov 25.
  • Musiek ES, Lim MM, Yang G, Bauer AQ, Qi L, Lee Y, Roh JH, Ortiz-Gonzalez X, Dearborn JT, Culver JP, Herzog ED, Hogenesch JB, Wozniak DF, Dikranian K, Giasson BI, Weaver DR, Holtzman DM, Fitzgerald GA. Circadian clock proteins regulate neuronal redox homeostasis and neurodegeneration. J Clin Invest. 2013 Dec 2. 123(12):5389-400. doi: 10.1172/JCI70317. Epub 2013 Nov 25.
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