Scientists have found a method for diagnosing dementia with a sleep test.

The Neuroscience of Sleep: Why Naps Are Good for Your Brain

By Valentina Paz, Hassan S Dashti, and Victoria Garfield | June 28th, 2023

Napping may be beneficial for your brain. Three researchers from University College London and Harvard University explain how.

Sleep plays an important role in keeping the brain healthy, which is why, while there is no single, magic number of hours per sleep that is right for everyone, people are often advised to get at least seven hours of sleep each night. When people have difficulties with sleep, for example, they usually feel more stressed. This is because a lack of sleep activates the body’s stress response, which affects different brain and body systems. This could lead to stress-related disorders.

While some research has found that long daytime naps can be a sign of an issue, many studies have found that, generally, napping also appears to be beneficial to the brain – with research showing that even brief naps of five to 15 minutes can instantly improve how well you perform mentally. But could frequent napping have long-term benefits for our brains? Our latest study shows that they might – we found that habitual naps may help preserve brain health.

Our study aimed to uncover the potential causal relationship between daytime napping, cognitive function and brain volume. We focused on reaction time and memory because these cognitive abilities tend to decline as we get older. We also examined the hippocampus (an important brain structure for memory) and total brain volumes because they play a significant role in explaining differences in memory and overall thinking skills.

To conduct our study, we used a technique called Mendelian randomization. This uses genetic markers to assess the relationship between exposures and outcomes (such as certain traits or diseases). We analyzed data from 378,932 people aged 40-69 who had participated in the UK Biobank study (a large-scale biomedical database) We only studied people with white European ancestry, as they accounted for more than 80% of the participants of the Biobank study.

We looked at genetic variations previously discovered to be associated with daytime napping, based on the question “Do you have a nap during the day?” with possible responses: “never or rarely”, “sometimes” and “usually”. We used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data to study brain volumes and the results of computerized games that involved identifying matches of cards to test cognitive abilities.

We discovered that people who had genetic variations associated with napping also had larger total brain volume on average.

Brain volume

Our brains naturally shrink gradually as we age. But this process is accelerated in people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Some studies have also shown that people with cognitive impairment may experience a decrease in brain volume.

Additionally, previous research has indicated a connection between sleep problems and reductions in brain volume in various regions of the brain, which can be linked to cognitive decline. However, it’s important to note that these findings have been inconsistent across different studies, with some studies not finding any associations between sleep disruptions and structural brain changes. But overall this suggests that poor sleep may decrease brain volume – subsequently affecting brain health.

Our findings demonstrate a larger total brain volume with more frequent napping. This suggests that regular napping may act as a safeguard, compensating for inadequate sleep and preserving brain health.

Surprisingly, we did not find evidence to suggest that napping has an impact on reaction time, visual memory or the volume of the hippocampus. We speculate that different people’s napping experiences – such as nap duration and timing – and the tests employed to study cognitive abilities may have influenced our results. Moreover, these discoveries hint at the possibility that frequent daytime napping may affect other brain regions and mental skills, like alertness, which should be explored in future studies.

Our findings help clarify the impact of daytime napping on brain health, which may limit cognitive decline as a person ages. In the future, it would be valuable to investigate these associations in other ancestries and age groups. Moreover, it is important to replicate these findings by using different data sets and research methods. But, as far as we know right now, taking a brief nap in the early afternoon may be restorative and re-energizing for those who need it – and may also be beneficial to brain health.The Conversation

This article by Valentina Paz, Assistant Researcher in the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Aging at UCL, Hassan S Dashti, Instructor in Anaesthesia Medicine at Harvard University, and Victoria Garfield, Senior Research Fellow in Genetic Epidemiology at UCL is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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