Sleep disturbances are common in dementia. But it is not yet known whether Alzheimer’s causes sleep problems, or whether sleep problems could be an early predictor of the disease. Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK will investigate this question at a new sleep unit.

The research team hopes that treating sleep disturbances early on could help slow down the progression of the disease – particularly as there are no other treatments available which do this. The facility opened on April 4.

The first study to take place in the unit will investigate whether healthy people who are at increased genetic risk of developing Alzheimer’s could be more vulnerable to sleep loss and how their body clock is affected.

Volunteers spending a night in the unit can expect to stay in a modern hotel-like en-suite room.

But instead of a relaxing break – their every move will be observed by a team of sleep specialists. They will also be hooked up to sensors measuring brain activity and take part in thinking, memory, balance, co-ordination, and attention tests throughout their stay.

Lead researcher Alpar Lazar, MD, from UEA’s School of Health Sciences, said: “Recent evidence suggest that sleep could be actively involved in the disease process. Trying to identify the cause of early sleep problems in people who have been recently diagnosed or who have genetic predispositions towards Alzheimer’s and the impact of these sleep problems on the brain will help us determine whether improving sleep could potentially slow down the disease process.”