In 2013, layers were peeled back from two interrelated mysteries: the function of sleep, and how the brain removes its waste byproducts.
While it’s been known for some time that the brain doesn’t directly use the body’s lymphatic system (our body-wide filtering and waste removal system) to dump its toxic waste, the mechanism that it does use wasn’t identified until 2012. The research team that made this discovery was led by University of Rochester neurosurgeon, Maiken Nedergaard, who dubbed the brain’s waste-removal mechanism the “glymphatic system.”
The glymphatic system relies on cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to flush out neurotoxins via pathways separate from the lymphatic system. Among the toxins that are flushed is beta amyloid, a protein that’s found in clumps in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers.
In 2013, Nedergaard’s research team followed up on this discovery by identifying “hidden caves” that open in the brain while we sleep, allowing cerebrospinal fluid to flush out neurotoxins through the spinal column.
The implications of this research can’t be overstated: failing to get enough sleep isn’t just a bad idea for all of the reasons we already know, but over time it could also lead to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. If the study’s findings are accurate, our brains need sleep to remove waste byproducts like beta amyloid that eventually become brain killers.
The study was published in the journal, Science.