According to Science magazine, scientists find that Alzheimer’s appears to degrade a special type of eye cell and may disrupt sleep patterns.
Nighttime restlessness is common among people with Alzheimer’s, and many stay awake agitated and pacing long after their family members have gone to sleep. Now, scientists may have figured out why: The disease appears to degrade a special type of eye cell that tells the brain when it’s day or night. If the discovery holds up, it might offer clinicians a new way to monitor the progression of Alzheimer’s and could lead to treatments that restore a good night’s sleep.
The cells in question are known as melanopsin retinal ganglion cells. They send signals to the brain center responsible for circadian rhythms, our body’s daily clock. The cells make up 1% to 2% of the eye’s light-responsive sensors, but they play no role in vision, says lead author Chiara La Morgia, a neuroscientist at the University of Bologna in Italy. Rather, they sense light levels around us, telling us when to get sleepy and when to be alert.
La Morgia and her colleagues, aware of the profound sleep problems often seen in Alzheimer’s, wondered whether the cells may stop doing their job as the disease progresses. “If you lose them, you should see dysfunction of the circadian rhythms and see disrupted sleep,” says Alfredo Sadun, neuro-opthamologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the study. “That is the exact symptomology we see in Alzheimer’s disease.”