Changes in brain cells that occur with age may reset the body’s internal “clock,” which governs sleep and wakefulness, according to new research in mice that may explain why elderly people often have trouble sleeping at night and are drowsy during the day.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found mice -- like humans -- experience shifts in daily activities and sleep patterns as they age. Researchers directed by Johanna Meijer at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, studied the electrical activity of cells in an area of the brain responsible for setting sleep-wake cycles.
They found aged mice showed disrupted sleep behavior and weakened activity in that region of the brain, as well as changes in individual brain cells, compared to younger mice.
"In fact, the changes at the single-cell level were more severe than the changes at the [activity] level," said Meijer, noting the finding represents a shift in understanding of aging's effects on the brain.
The researchers said certain drugs, treatments and substances – such as potassium – can alter those cells, so the findings may point the way to new treatments for age-related sleep disorders.
"This work provides a new target for potential therapeutic interventions that can mitigate the age-related decline in the sleep-wake cycle," said Christopher Colwell, a sleep expert at the University of California-Los Angeles, in commenting on the study.