For the goods of this study, researchers recruited 101 people in good health but at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Hallmarks of the disease include the build-up of harmful proteins in the brain - amyloid plaques and tau tangles.
A few studies in cognitively normal people and one in mice have shown a connection between chronic sleep disruption and the development of amyloid plaques. The scientists looked for signs of toxic brain protein clumps, tau tangles and beta-amyloid.
She added that doctors should encourage adults to improve the quality of their sleep to reduce the number of Alzheimer's sufferers in the future.
Researcher Sjors Scheres said that this study can help show which parts of the filament formation of these tau proteins are actually important in the development of the disease and eventually could be drug targets.
Lead scientist Dr Barbara Bendlin, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S., said: "Previous evidence has shown that sleep may influence the development or progression of Alzheimer's disease in various ways". Using an innovative imaging technique known as cryo-electron microscopy, which studies samples at very low temperatures, the scientists were able to obtain a detailed image of the molecular structure of tau filaments from the brain of a 74-year-old woman with a confirmed diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. Other brain proteins that cause these diseases such as beta amyloid protein deposits in Alzheimer's disease or alpha synuclein in Parkinson's disease, can now all be clearly photographed and better understood explained researchers. Bendlin and her colleagues are recruiting people at risk for Alzheimer's to be studied in a sleep lab, where objective measurements can be taken.
'It may be possible that early intervention for people at risk of Alzheimer's disease may prevent or delay the onset of the disease'.
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One of the limitations of the study was that the sleep problems were self-reported.
Dr. Ghetti is an global leader in research on the neuropathology of dementia. Alzheimer's disease typically means progressive dementia or loss of memory and brain functions. Bendlin stresses that much remains to be discovered about the link between sleep and dementia.
Dr. Ghetti said their findings, published online July 5 in Nature, represent one of the major discoveries of the past 25 years in the field of Alzheimer's disease research. "In terms of figuring out which comes first, brain changes or sleep problems, that will be hard to tease apart, because the effects really do appear to be going in both directions". "So there may be a bio-directional interaction".
The team at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology says its findings "open up a whole new era" in neurodegenerative disease.
Attempts to develop a drug to slow the pace of dementia have been met by repeated failure.
That said, it may take many more years (or even decades) for new treatments to ultimately come out of this - but at least we're now a big step closer to that long-hoped-for eventuality, which before now may have been impossible.