A healthy brain requires plenty of restful sleep, not only to support proper memory retention but also for physical maintenance and detoxification purposes. And new research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health further reinforces these latter points, having found that getting a good night’s rest is absolutely vital for brain cells to fully relax, allowing special fluid to rush in the brain and literally flush out material toxins during the night.

It is a whole new area of brain research that scientists from the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York are pioneering, but it has the potential to revolutionize how the medical community views degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. If simple rest is really the missing ingredient for many people currently suffering the early stages of dementia, then the cure is pretty straight forward.

According to a recent announcement by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., and her colleagues were not expecting the results they eventually arrived at as part of their sleep study. Though it has been hypothesized that sleep somehow helps clear the brain and prepare it for each new day, little is understood about the mechanisms that drive this important process — that is, until now.

As published in the journal Science, the new research identified glia, a type of brain cell, as the controlling mechanism that allows cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to flow through special channels in the brain and scavenge waste. And it is only while a person sleeps, says Dr. Nedergaard and her team, that glia appears to perform this important duty, effectively facilitating a vast network of tiny channels through which CSF can flow and clear out toxins.

After injecting a special dye into the brains of test mice, the team observed that CSF flowed only when the mice were unconscious, asleep or anesthetized. When the mice were awake, the fluid remained mostly stagnant, as the brain apparently cannot perform both active cognitive duties and cleansing at the same time. Additionally, the team observed, using special electrodes, that the space between brain cells expands by about 60 percent during sleep, allowing CSF to move more readily.

“It’s as if Dr. Nedergaard and her colleagues have uncovered a network of hidden caves and these exciting results highlight the potential importance of the network in normal brain function,” stated Dr. Roderick Corriveau, Ph.D., a program director at NINDS, about the incredible findings.


Much like how the lymphatic system clears out metabolic waste from the rest of the body, the “glymphatic system,” as Dr. Nedergaard calls it, takes care of the cellular trash that otherwise builds up in a person’s brain and impairs neurological function. This even includes those infamous beta-amyloid proteins, which copious research has identified as being linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“We here report that sleep has a critical function in ensuring metabolic homeostasis,” write the authors in their abstract. “[T]he restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system.”

The moral of the story, in conclusion, is that sleep is an absolutely critical component of vibrant health. It is during these salient, unconscious hours that the brain is able to cleanse and restore itself in ways that it is unable to do while awake. So be sure to maintain a regular and adequate sleep schedule — your brain will thank you.

By: Ethan A. Huff