Can Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Be Detected while You’re Asleep?

Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are both neurodegenerative diseases that currently don’t have a cure. For both diseases, great strides have been made in research, including recent findings using sleep patterns. Scientists believe that early diagnoses using this information may help slow disease progression or offer prevention.

How Sleep Patterns at Home Can Enable Widespread Screening for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s

Changes in brain structure and function during the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can begin long before symptom onset.

In fact, individuals with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s may begin to show sleep disturbances and changes in brain activity levels during sleep from the early stages of these conditions. This is why scientists believe that brain activity patterns during sleep could be used as biomarkers for these neurodegenerative conditions.

Below are some of the distinctive sleep patterns that can be observed in those with early-stage Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s:

Sleep Patterns in Alzheimer’s

Changes in sleep patterns, including the incidence of sleep disorders, are closely associated with neurodegenerative disorders. Individuals with Alzheimer’s tend to wake up more frequently during the night and stay awake for longer. These individuals show changes in specific features of electroencephalography (EEG) brain activity patterns during all phases of sleep.

Studies examining brain activity patterns of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease at rest have shown the following:

    • There are changes in the rhythms in the cortex, which is involved in cognitive functions, including memory and thinking.
    • There is often a slowing of EEG patterns involving an increase in lower-frequency waves and a decrease in high-frequency waves in the cortex.
    • There may be changes in brain activity patterns that are associated with alterations in brain structure and function observed in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
    • Changes may be present in EEG patterns in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting their suitability as a biomarker for this condition.
    • Changes can also include a slowing of EEG patterns during the rapid-eye-movement phase of sleep.
    • One can accurately distinguish between Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by observing EEG patterns.

These EEG patterns during sleep are associated with memory and learning, and changes in brain activity patterns could underly the deficits in these cognitive domains in Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence suggests that these changes in EEG patterns during sleeping are a more accurate predictor of cognitive deficits in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease than brain patterns during the wakeful state.

Sleep Patterns in Parkinson’s

Similar to those with Alzheimer’s, individuals with Parkinson’s disease also show similar sleep disturbances and alterations in sleep phases, such as a reduction of time spent in the REM phase, slowing of EEG patterns, and changes in brain activity patterns that often appear before deficits in motor function.

Researchers Develop Wearable EEG to Measure Brain Activity Levels while You Sleep

Currently, researchers in Denmark are developing an easy-to-use wearable EEG device that resembles in-ear headphones to measure brain activity levels during sleep. Besides measuring brain waves, the device also allows for the measurement of other sleep-related variables including blood oxygen levels, body temperature, and heart and respiratory rates. The scientists hope the development of this easy-to-use device will facilitate large-scale screening for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in the general population. This project, entitled “Progression Assessment in Neurodegenerative Disorders of Ageing (PANDA),” will be conducted over four years in Denmark.

Professor Poul Jørgen Jennum, a clinical neurophysiologist at the University of Copenhagen and one of the researchers involved in this initiative, notes in a news release:

“We hope that we’ll be able to use the ear-EEG to replace in part the existing and somewhat more troublesome sleep monitoring. We’ll try to make the technology so simple that it can be used at home and over a longer period of time. Ideally, we hope it will be possible to measure your own sleep over a few days, weeks, or even months every year.”

The researchers intend to test this device for its ability to discriminate between individuals with or without Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease as a part of the project.

A US-Developed Brain Wave-Monitoring Device Also Seeks Early Signs of Alzheimer’s during Sleep

Researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Washington University in St. Louis have also identified a way to assess brain activity in sleep that occurs in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, typically many years prior to developing symptoms of dementia. Similar to the device being studied in Denmark, this device is worn during sleep to monitor brain waves capable of identifying disruptions that are possible biomarkers of early signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia. This device is a headband, where the one in Denmark is worn in the ear like an earbud.

Study results that were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association identify a relationship between EEG readings and changes indicative of pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease. Additional findings further demonstrate that early stages of mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease can be detected using the EEG signals.

“This digital biomarker essentially enables any simple EEG headband device to be used as a fitness tracker for brain health,” said Brice McConnell, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and study senior author.

To test the device, researchers analyzed data from 205 aging adults, identifying problems with memory reactivation in association with levels of proteins such as amyloid and tau that build up in Alzheimer’s disease. “Identifying these early biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease in asymptomatic adults can help patients develop preventative or mitigation strategies before the disease advances,” McConnell said.

EEG Devices Are an Exciting Step for Disease Detection

Both EEG devices described are an exciting step toward using wearables as digital biomarkers for early detection of neurodegenerative diseases. According to McConnell, “(w)e are just scratching the surface with this work, paving the way for affordable and easy-to-use devices to monitor brain health. This is proof of principle that brain waves during sleep can be turned into a digital biomarker, and our next steps involve perfecting the process.”

Dr. Steven Allder, a consultant neurologist agrees. “There is a huge need to accurately identify patients in the early stages of age-related neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Doing so would be revolutionary.” Dr. Allder also noted that the EEG-based technique “could have applications far beyond an early diagnosis of these conditions.” He added, “(t)he EEG signal is a rich source of data, so I would predict [the researchers] will eventually succeed. This is another sign neurology is entering a whole new paradigm of care.”

We will continue to keep our readers up-to-date on this and other research involving early diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases.

If You Have a Loved One with a Neurodegenerative Disorder, Be Sure to Plan Ahead!

Do you or a loved one have Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or another neurodegenerative disease? If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past three to five years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared! Among other services, we offer peace of mind through our four levels of lifetime protection planning:

Level 1 — Incapacity Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate.
Level 2 — Revocable Living Trust Estate Planning is about protecting your assets from lifetime probate and after-death probate.
Level 3 — Living Trust Plus® Asset Protection Planning provides protection from probate, lawsuits, home care, and assisted living expenses by allowing access to Veterans Aid and Attendance benefits, and nursing home expenses by allowing access to Medicaid.
Level 4 – Life Care Planning, Medicaid Asset Protection, and Veterans Asset Protection provides comprehensive planning and filing services, often at times of crisis, though this type of planning can be done anytime someone is beyond the first step of the Elder Care Continuum aka Aging Continuum.

Please contact us whenever you are ready to ensure that you have the appropriate level of planning:

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville, MD Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
Annapolis, MD Elder Law Attorney: 410-216-0703
Washington, DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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