Clinical Neuropsychologist Professor Sharon Naismith from the Brain and Mind Centre and Charles Perkins Centre is challenging what we think we know about dementia. She is leading a world-first project that shifts the focus from known risk factors for brain impairment – depression and inactivity – to an entirely new discovery channel: sleep disruption.
Professor Naismith is leading the Centres of Research Excellence to investigate the role of sleep in accelerating cognitive decline, which can lead to dementia.
Her research team will focus their one-of-a-kind program on isolating sleep issues as a risk factor and prove that modifying sleep habits can slow down or even prevent dementia.
New scientific evidence shows that sleep is like the brain’s plumbing system – it drains toxins and harmful proteins associated with many types of dementia and flushes them out. It's also vital for consolidating our memories overnight, regulating our immune system and inflammatory responses and for the growth and integrity of our brain cells.
Dementia starts 10 to 20 years before symptoms become apparent, making it extremely hard to predict. This is where early intervention becomes key. The biggest window for intervention is for people between the ages of 45 and 60, yet most services only focus on people older than 65. Professor Naismith is at the forefront of changing our national dementia priority from symptom management to prevention.
“Typically, by the time someone seeks assessment for memory concerns, the abnormal dementia proteins have been accumulating in their brain for decades. Unfortunately, at this time, we have often missed the critical window for early intervention,” she says.
Her broad program of work focuses on early detection of many risk factors for dementia to keep the brain healthy from mid-life. By focusing on sleep as a novel risk factor, new targeted treatments can be tested.
A diverse team of innovative researchers, including respiratory and sleep doctors, neurologists, psychologists, pharmacists, nurses, geneticists and biomedical engineers, from our multidisciplinary institutes will work together to determine the mechanisms by which sleep contributes to dementia.
The team will be using e-health platforms for online screening and testing world-first technologies, such as ‘mattresses’ that can detect sleep disorder breathing, or ‘watches’ that can measure oxygen desaturation during sleep. Using novel neuroimaging methods, they will look at how certain fibre changes in our brain actually cause sleep problems. They will conduct a suite of clinical trials of both drug and non-drug interventions to determine the optimal treatments for sleep disturbance in ageing and dementia.
As the world’s population continues to age, this revolutionary approach to addressing sleep disturbance and dementia prevention will improve wellbeing and cognitive health and ultimately could change the functioning and quality of life for millions globally.
Professor Naismith's role as the Leonard P Ullman Chair in Psychology is funded by a gift to the University's INSPIRED campaign. Discover how philanthropy is transforming research and education.