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Study Reveals That Common Sleeping Pill Reduces Alzheimer’s Proteins by 20% in One Day


A regular sleeping pill may lower levels of Alzheimer’s-linked proteins in the brain, a small study suggests.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, followed 38 people who took suvorexant — a prescription drug sold under the brand name Belsomra — for two nights.

Those who took the highest dose had amyloid levels up to one-fifth lower than other participants in their spinal fluid the next morning.

Scientists are not urging people to take the pills every night, but say much more extensive research is needed to back up the results.

Previous articles have suggested that taking sleeping pills may actually increase a person’s risk of the disease, as they interfere with sound sleep.

Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Missouri, said people who took higher doses of suvorexant — sold under the brand name Belsomra — had lower levels of amyloid and tau proteins in their spinal fluid. They added that it was premature to constantly take the pills and that more work was needed

Patients received a high dose of suvorexant (Belsomra) over two nights (shown)

Patients received a high dose of suvorexant (Belsomra) over two nights (shown)

About six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease in the US, and this number is expected to nearly triple to 14 million by 2060.

Scientists aren’t clear on the cause, but some suggest that a buildup of proteins in the brain — such as amyloid and tau — can slow down communication between cells and even kill them, leading to the disease.

Other theories point to factors such as damage to blood vessels that run through the brain as factors behind the disease.

Sleep helps clear these proteins from the brain, research shows.

In addition to pills, people can also try to stick to a regular bedtime, avoid staring at screens before bed, and avoid bright lights in the late hours to help with sleep.

Suvorexant is only available by prescription in the US for people with insomnia and costs about $15 per pill – although it is available at a lower price with insurance.

According to data from its owner and New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Merck, more than $500 million is made from suvorexant each year.

Senior author Dr. Brendan Lucey, a sleep physician, said the study was “small” and a “proof-of-concept.”

“It would be premature for people concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease to interpret this as a reason to start taking suvorexant every night,” he said.

‘We don’t yet know whether long-term use is effective in preventing cognitive decline, and if so, at what dose and for whom.’

He added: ‘Nevertheless, these results are very encouraging.

“This drug is already available and proven safe, and now we have evidence that it affects the levels of proteins that are critical for driving Alzheimer’s disease.”

Suvorexant works by blocking receptors in the brain for the hormone orexin, which promotes wakefulness.

Scientists suggest that this may help a person fall asleep faster. It’s not clear how they might affect sleep quality.

There are three orexin inhibitors – including suvorexant – that are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the US.

In the first study of its kind, scientists recruited 38 participants aged 45 to 65 without cognitive impairment.

They were split into three equal groups and given either a high dose of the drug (20 mg), a low dose (10 mg), or a placebo.

They were all given the pill at 9 p.m. and then allowed to fall asleep in a specialized lab in St. Louis.

Their spinal fluid was sampled every two hours for 36 hours to monitor levels of amyloid and tau proteins.

Sampling started one hour before the sedative was administered.

Scientists found that patients who received the highest dose of suvorexant had a 10 to 20 percent drop in amyloid levels after the first night.

They also found that levels of tau dropped by 10 to 15 percent.

There was no significant difference between peers who received a low dose and the rest who received the placebo.

After 24 hours, tau levels had risen in the highest dose group, but amyloid levels remained low compared to the placebo group.

A second dose was then administered for night two, which again led to lower levels of the proteins in the high-dose group.

Dr. Lucey said: ‘If we can lower amyloid every day, we think the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain will decrease over time.

“And hyperphosphorylated tau is very important in the development of Alzheimer’s disease because it is associated with the formation of tau tangles that kill neurons.

“If you can reduce tau phosphorylation, there would potentially be less tangle formation and less neuronal death.”

Dr. Lucey, who was part of the team that first suggested the proteins behind Alzheimer’s disease, will now conduct long-term studies to assess the effects of orexin inhibitors in people at higher risk of dementia.

Dr. Lucey added: ‘Future studies should ensure that people take these drugs for at least months and measure the effect on amyloid and tau over time.

‘We will also study test subjects who are older and may still be cognitively healthy, but who already have some amyloid plaques in their brains.

‘This study involved middle-aged, healthy participants. The results may be different in an older population.

“I am hopeful that we will eventually develop drugs that take advantage of the link between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease to prevent cognitive decline.

‘We’re not quite there yet. At this point, the best advice I can give is, if you can, get a good night’s sleep, and if you can’t, see a sleep specialist and get your sleep problems treated.”

The research has been published in the journal Annals of neurology.

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