Alzheimer’s Sleep Research

Update: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and University of Massachusetts Amherst have completed their pilot study of the role poor sleep plays in Alzheimer’s disease. The term of the project and the National Institutes of Health grant that funded it ran from August 2021 to April 30, 2024, which is when researchers concluded work with non-human primates at UW–Madison. They conducted the planned first phase of the research, in which a small group of adult marmosets were awakened several times over the course of one night. The scientists will examine the data collected on the effect of the interrupted sleep on the animals, and decide in conjunction with NIH whether the results suggest further research would help us better understand the causes and development of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s researchers will determine the next steps based on what they’ve learned.

Originally posted February 2024:

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and University of Massachusetts Amherst are collaborating on a study of Alzheimer’s disease by focusing on the role poor sleep plays in a debilitating disorder that often results in deadly complications. 

Their goal is to develop a new way to study Alzheimer’s. The disease may be robbing as many as 6 million people in the United States alone of their memories, thinking skills and eventually basic and essential physical abilities like swallowing, but living models of the disease are limited to animals like mice. An animal model more neurologically similar to humans would provide new and better opportunities to scientists studying the causes and potential treatments for Alzheimer’s. 

In a pilot study underway at the National Institutes of Health-funded Wisconsin National Primate Center, non-human primate research specialists will disrupt the sleep of adult marmosets, a primate species often employed in studies of the brain. Other scientists have discovered a noteworthy connection between disrupted sleep and conditions including dementia and Alzheimer’s, but those connections have not yet established whether poor sleep causes those disorders. 

A small group of the animals will be roused from sleep several times over the course of one night. Later phases of the study plan to rouse them over the course of three nights in a row. The animals, attended to by specially trained veterinarians in carefully managed conditions, will be awakened by sounds — short tones played at the volume of a normal conversation or an alarm clock. 

The researchers will track the animals’ behavior and biomarkers obtained through urine, feces and occasional blood samples to see if the brief sleep disruptions have caused changes similar to mild symptoms and biochemical markers seen in human Alzheimer’s patients. 

This research has been singled out by PETA, a group that opposes any research with animals, as unnecessary. Until scientists understand the causes and development of Alzheimer’s in a way that helps them study more treatments in humans, studying animal models of the disease remains necessary to researchers, patient advocacy organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, and the public and their elected representatives and experts at federal agencies — including the National Institutes of Health who vetted and funded the marmoset sleep study because they consider it promising and important to public health. 

Animal models are indispensable tools for understanding the development of complex disorders and living organisms. Exploring sleep’s role in the development of a disease like Alzheimer’s in people would be unethical and difficult. That’s why UW–Madison continues to value and support safe and ethical animal studies like this research with the potential to improve human and animal health.