What Does Your Brain Do While You Sleep?

Now we know, thanks to a Boston University sleep research study published in the journal Science. The results underline how vital sleep is for keeping our brains healthy, actually clearing toxins from our brains while we sleep. This new research may help provide new avenues for treating (and preventing) neurodegenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

What the study focused on:

  • When we sleep, our brains go through several unique phases, from a light slumber to a deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
  • The Boston University study focused on non-REM sleep, that deep phase which happens earlier in the night and has been associated with memory retention.
  • Scientists knew from a 2013 study on mice that toxins like beta amyloid, which can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, were swept away during this sleep stage.
  • Boston University researchers were curious how those toxins were cleared out and why that process only happened during sleep.
  • Researchers suspected that cerebrospinal fluid, a clear, water-like liquid that flows around the brain, might be involved, but didn’t understand why sleep was required to make the detox happen.

How the study worked:

There were several hurdles to navigate past. Study participants had to be able to fall asleep inside an MRI machine – no small task! Then, in order to get realistic sleep cycles, researchers had to run the tests at midnight, asking that subjects stay up late the night before so they would be sleepy enough to drift off once the test began.

  • Participants were outfitted with an EEG cap so researchers could look at naturally occurring electrical currents flowing through their brains during sleep. These currents showed which stage of sleep the person was in while the MRI measured blood oxygen levels in their brains and how much cerebrospinal fluid was flowing.
  • What researchers discovered was that during non-REM sleep, large, slow waves of cerebrospinal fluid were washing over the brain. The EEG readings showed that during non-REM sleep, neurons start to synchronize, turning on and off at the same time. Because the neurons stopped firing in unison, they didn’t need as much oxygen, which meant less blood would flow to the brain. The team then observed that cerebrospinal fluid would then rush in, filling in the (blood flow) space left behind.

Maiken Nedergaard, the neuroscientist at the University of Rochester who led the 2013 study that described how sleep can clear out brain toxins in mice said, “I don’t think anybody in their wildest fantasy has really shown that the brain’s electrical activity is moving fluid. So (this new study) is really exciting.”

“We know that the function of sleep is not just to relax,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, “but is actually a very important brain health function. Since our neurons don’t all turn off at the same time when we’re awake, sleep is the only time brain blood levels allow waves of cerebrospinal fluid to circulate around the brain and clear out any metabolic byproducts that accumulate, like beta amyloid.”

What does this mean for treating Alzheimer’s?

Instead of targeting medications that act on one particular molecule (like beta amyloid) in the brain, new treatments might focus on increasing the amount of cerebrospinal fluid that washes over the brain. After all, brain aging is not just about just one type of toxin, but many.

The brain is endlessly fascinating, says O’Neil, and there is much to learn and put to good use in maximizing brain efficiency, dexterity, and high functioning. That’s why we are excited about our anti-aging protocol and all we do here at INDY Neurofeedback.

Self Compassion — Stress Relief That Lasts

Stress — the feeling of being overwhelmed by your to-do list, social media, politics, multi-tasking, being ever available via your phone, judging yourself harshly… the list goes on… indefinitely.

So, what to do? Next time you’re feeling particularly frazzled, try this new stress hack: Be compassionate to yourself.

Sounds too easy, right? It’s actually harder than you think to be kind to yourself. Turns out that judgy voice in your head is strongest when it’s judging you!

A new study in the Clinical Psychological Science found that practicing self-compassion has great health benefits, including reducing:

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • sweating 
  • anxiety levels

The above symptoms are triggered by the body’s threat response system (adrenaline surges) that chronic stress can cause. Being in a state of constant chronic stress is terrible for your brain, your heart, your digestive system, your ability to keep from getting sick, and your overall wellbeing and longevity.

However, learning to be more self-compassionate appears to put the body in a state of safety and relaxation — which shows up as a slower pulse (heart rate) and slowed breathing. Both can be regulated by sending loving thoughts inward.

Try it for yourself

  • Take a moment to stop what you are doing and close your eyes 
  • Slow down and deepen your breathing 
  • Mentally scan your body from head to toe
  • Bring awareness to and give gratitude for each body part and what it does to keep you healthy and active.

This may be difficult at the start, so give it time. As Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback says, “We believe everyone can train themselves to be self-compassionate. Being kind to yourself is like flexing a muscle. The more you practice, the easier it will become.”

Diet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

diet soda popDiet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

Recently, a large study tracking stroke and dementia risk in diet soda drinkers caught our attention at INDY Neurofeedback.

The health hazards of sugary beverages like regular soda have been known since 2015. But a more recent study shows that the sugar-free soda version is not any healthier. 

Artificially flavored drinks like diet soda seem to be linked to a higher risk of stroke and dementia, according to a new study published in an American Heart Association journal.

This ten year study included one group of 2,888 adults age 45 and older, and a second group with 1,484 adults over age 60. Researchers studied the over-45 group for stroke risk (rare before age 45) and the over-60 group for dementia (rare before age 60).  

Researchers analyzed the number of artificially flavored drinks each person consumed. They then checked the group’s health over the next 10 years and found:

  • Those who drank at least one diet soda per day were about three-times more likely to experience an ischemic stroke (blockage of blood vessels to brain tissue), compared with those who avoided the beverages. 
  • Just one daily diet soda was linked to higher rates of dementia as well, although other risk factors like obesity or diabetes also could be to blame.
  • Researchers note that it isn’t proven that diet sodas caused these conditions. But it is true that those who developed stroke or dementia had consumed more soda than those who had not. (Other factors, such as obesity – also tied to diet soda drinking – could also be a factor).

More research is needed to determine exactly how—or how much—artificially sweetened beverages affect your vascular system, the network of vessels that carries blood to your brain. 

“What we do know,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, “is that when vessels harden or develop sticky plaque build-up, it raises your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, as well as dementia and stroke.”

“So the best thing you can do for your brain health is to maintain a healthy lifestyle to help protect against these illnesses. What’s good for your health and heart is generally also good for your brain.” 

Learn to Quiet Your Brain — and Live Longer

Those of us at INDY Neurofeedback were fascinated with a new study recently published in the medical journal Nature, which linked quieter brains with longevity. We were fascinated because it confirmed what we have been seeing in our neurofeedback clinic for years.

It makes sense that a less active or calmer brain would use less body energy. That’s the theory behind activities such as mindfulness and meditation – which have been around for thousands of years. It also supports the HeartMath HRV (heart rate variability) program all clients are taught in conjunction with our neurofeedback training. 

In the Nature study, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that a calm brain with less neural activity could lead to a longer life. 

Here’s what the Harvard study showed:

  • The study analyzed donated brain tissue from people who died (aged from 60 to over 100). 
  • A protein that suppresses neural activity — called REST — was found to be associated with neural activity and mortality.
  • Researchers noticed that the longest-lived people had lower levels of REST as well as genes related to neural activity.
  • The study showed that daily periods of slowed activity spent in meditation, uni-tasking, being in quiet environments, or sleeping, were just as important for life-long brain health and longevity as more well-known maxims such as staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise. 

“Even though our brains weigh only about one-seventieth of our total weight, brains consume nearly one third of all the energy in our body,” explains Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So it is incredibly important that we learn how to quiet our brains to give them a chance to rest – especially when all around us, we’re encouraged to multi-task and stay engaged.”

“Learning how to quiet our overly-busy, multi-tasking brains is vital for our mental health. And now, we know it is also connected to longevity.”

Here is what INDY Neurofeedback tells our clients:

  • Begin to tune into and listen to your body. Find out where you are holding in tension, and acknowledge those areas. When you acknowledge your body, you are more open to what is really going on for you.
  • Learn to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness and deep breathing.
  • Try regular meditating. It’s a good way to stay tuned to your internal mental state.
  • Learn to stop reacting and talking, and be present. Really listen to what others are communicating.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself about having clear boundaries. Know when you need to take a break from work, children, problem-solving, or being with others. 
  • Spend time alone, doing what you enjoy.

Those of us here at INDY Neurofeedback have noticed that by incorporating both HRV and neurofeedback techniques, individuals can learn to gain control over various over or under active parts of our brains, providing the tools for healthier more optimal brain function.