New research to examine boosting brain’s self-cleaning mechanism as a preventative for Parkinson’s

29 Nov 2019

A new study has been funded by Parkinson’s UK and Alzheimer’s Research UK to look at the role of sleep, exercise and alcohol in boosting waste disposal in the brain to prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Led by Dr Ian Harrison at the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London, the team will examine whether boosting the brain’s natural waste disposal system, the glymphatic system, could clear toxic proteins which build up in the brains of people living with both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Previous studies in mice have found that sleep, exercise and limited alcohol consumption may all assist the glymphatic system in flushing the brain and keeping it healthy.

The project will last three years and will build on those previous studies. The team will investigate whether drug-like molecules can be used to boost the glymphatic system, and whether this in turn can protect the brain from damage.

For more information on the study, visit Parkinson’s UK

Ways to help maximise glymphatic function and help maintain a health brain

Only recently discovered in 2012, the glymphatic system is a brain-wide pathway which uses mitochondria to remove waste from the brain, and drains it away from the brain through the cerebrospinal fluid.

Aside from whether it is found to be a preventative mechanism in the development of conditions like dementia and Parknison’s, it is clearly an essential system, and supporting it will assist in maintaining as healthy a brain as possible for everyone. Sharing ‘good glymphatic health’ with patients may be a positive area of lifestyle discussions.

  1. As a system, it is ten times more active when you are asleep than awake. Simultaneously, your brain cells are reduced in size by about 60 percent, allowing for more efficient waste removal (Xie: 2013). Ensuring a good quantity - and possibly more importantly, good quality of sleep (Stevenson: 2016; Walker: 2018) - will assist the brain in getting rid of as much toxic waste as possible.
  2. Intermittent fasting, or the practice of eating all meals within a fixed window of the day and thus fasting for 15-18 hours each day, is another potential way to assist the glymphatic system, as it has been found to improve mitochondrial function (Weir: 2017).
  3. Exercise has been found to improve mitochondrial activity, and it is the mitochondria which removes the waste within the glymphatic system. Movement and exercise have also been found to improve balance in the central nervous system (CNS) (Basso, last accessed 29.11.19), and the glymphatic system and the CNS are interlinked with one providing the waste removal for the other (Plog: 2018). Additionally, good quality sleep is difficult to achieve with the nervous system being in a sympathetic ‘flight or fight’ state (Steveson: 2016).
  4. Pranayama breathing (Sinha: 2013) and spending time in nature (Farrow: 2019) have been found to assist in the health of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), switching from our sympathetic to our parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ system.

For more information:

  • ‘Sleep Smarter’ by Shawn Stevenson looks at the research behind how we can improve the quality of our sleep and why we need to. Three podcasts with him also go into almost as much detail at the Model Health Show.
  • Sleep scientist Matthew Walker’s ‘Why we sleep’ is an incredibly in-depth book. A two-part podcast discussing his findings is also available via Feel Better, Live More.
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