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Can Nighttime Brain Activity Potentially Prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?

Can Nighttime Brain Activity Potentially Prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?

While many perceive sleep as a period of quiet and stillness, it contrasts sharply with activities that go on within the brain. While the world slumbers, the brain is far from rest. Instead, there is increased brain function as brain cells produce numerous electrical pulses that spiral into waves.1


But why does the brain remain active during rest?


Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis provide a compelling answer. The findings published in Nature2 showed that brain waves aid in cleansing the brain of accumulated waste during sleep. The nerve cells work together to generate rhythmic waves that propel fluid through the brain tissues, cleansing them of metabolic waste and harmful proteins.


Dr. Li-Feng Jiang-Xie, the study’s lead author, likened these neurons to “miniature pumps,” driving fluid flow and facilitating debris removal. This mechanism holds promise in potentially delaying or even preventing neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, where excess waste accumulation3 leads to neurodegeneration.


Brain Cells and Waste Removal


Brain cells shape our cognition, emotions, and physical movements, forming dynamic networks crucial for memory and problem-solving. However, these tasks require energy, generating metabolic waste as a byproduct.4


Jonathan Kipnis, Ph.D., the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor in Pathology & Immunology and the study’s senior author, emphasizes the critical importance of disposing of this metabolic waste to prevent the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. He states, “It is critical that the brain disposes of metabolic waste that can build up and contribute to neurodegenerative diseases”.


“We knew that sleep is a time when the brain initiates a cleaning process to flush out waste and toxins it accumulates during wakefulness. But we didn’t know how that happens. These findings might be able to point us toward strategies and potential therapies to speed up the removal of damaging waste and to remove it before it can lead to dire consequences,” Kipnis further explains, highlighting the potential of this research in developing interventions to mitigate the risks associated with waste buildup in the brain.


The Mechanism of Brain Cleaning


Cleansing the dense brain entails several processes. Cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain collects toxic waste as it transverses through complex cellular networks. As it exits the brain, this contaminated fluid must cross a barrier before entering the lymphatic vessels within the dura mater- the outer tissue layer encasing the brain beneath the skull.5 However, the mechanism driving fluid movement in, through, and out of the brain remained a mystery.


By studying sleeping mice, the researchers discovered the driving force behind the brain-cleaning efforts. Dr. Jaing-Xie explained that they found out that neurons orchestrate these cleansing processes by emitting coordinated electrical signals, generating rhythmic waves within the brain. These waves propelled fluid movement.


To further understand this mechanism, the research team selectively silenced specific brain regions to inhibit neurons’ generation of rhythmic waves. Silencing specific brain regions disrupted this wave generation, hindering fluid flow and trapping waste within the brain tissue.


Enhancing the Brain’s Cleaning Process


According to Dr. Kipnis, “One of the reasons that we sleep is to cleanse the brain,” He suggests that enhancing this cleansing process could potentially allow individuals to sleep less while maintaining good health. Notably, not everyone enjoys the luxury of a full eight hours of sleep nightly, and inadequate sleep can harm health. 


Studies on genetically engineered mice that require less sleep have shown healthier brain function, prompting questions about the relationship between efficient brain waste removal and sleep duration. “Could we help people living with insomnia by enhancing their brain’s cleaning abilities so they can get by on less sleep?”


Throughout sleep cycles, brain wave patterns fluctuate. Notably, taller brain waves with greater amplitude exert more force, aiding in fluid movement. The researchers are intrigued by the variations in the rhythmicity of neuron firing during sleep and are keen to explore which brain regions are most susceptible to waste accumulation.


Dr. Jiang-Xie draws parallels between brain cleaning and dishwashing. Just as different types of waste on dishes require distinct cleaning methods, the brain may adapt its cleaning processes based on the type and quantity of waste present. This analogy sheds light on the brain’s adaptive mechanisms, emphasizing the overarching objective of waste removal despite variations in cleaning methods.


Hence, this research unveils the role of nocturnal brain waves in safeguarding neurological health. Scientists aim to discover how brain waste removal can prevent neurodegenerative diseases and promote overall brain health.




Q1: How does the brain remain active during sleep? A1: During sleep, the brain remains active by producing numerous electrical pulses that form waves. This activity is crucial for the cleansing process of the brain, removing accumulated metabolic waste and harmful proteins.


Q2: What are the potential benefits of the brain’s nighttime activity? A2: The brain’s nighttime activity may potentially delay or prevent the onset of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by efficiently removing excess waste that contributes to neurodegeneration.


Q3: Why is waste removal important for brain health? A3: Efficient waste removal is critical for preventing the buildup of metabolic byproducts that can contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases. It helps maintain cognitive functions, memory, and problem-solving abilities.


Q4: How does the brain cleanse itself of waste? A4: The brain uses rhythmic waves generated by neurons during sleep to propel fluid through brain tissues, cleansing them of metabolic waste. This fluid then exits the brain, carrying toxic waste through the glymphatic system.


Q5: Can enhancing the brain’s cleaning process reduce the need for sleep? A5: Researchers suggest that enhancing the brain’s cleaning process might allow individuals to maintain good health with less sleep. This is based on studies showing that genetically engineered mice requiring less sleep had healthier brain functions.


Q6: What is the significance of the variations in brain wave patterns during sleep? A6: Variations in brain wave patterns, such as taller waves with greater amplitude, can exert more force, aiding in more efficient fluid movement and waste removal. Researchers are exploring which brain regions are most affected by waste accumulation and how these patterns influence cleaning efficiency.


Q7: Could improving the brain’s cleaning abilities help people with insomnia? A7: Enhancing the brain’s cleaning capabilities could potentially benefit individuals with insomnia by allowing them to get by on less sleep without compromising their health, though further research is needed to explore this possibility fully.


Q8: How does the research on nighttime brain activity and waste removal contribute to preventing neurodegenerative diseases? A8: Understanding how nighttime brain activity aids in waste removal can lead to new strategies and therapies to accelerate the clearance of harmful waste, potentially preventing neurodegenerative diseases and promoting overall brain health.



  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved March 14, 2023 from 
  2. Jiang-Xie, LF., Drieu, A., Bhasiin, K. et al. Neuronal dynamics direct cerebrospinal fluid perfusion and brain clearance. Nature 627, 157–164 (2024). 
  3. Kaur J, Fahmy LM, Davoodi-Bojd E, Zhang L, Ding G, Hu J, Zhang Z, Chopp M and Jiang Q (2021) Waste Clearance in the Brain. Front. Neuroanat. 15:665803. doi: 10.3389/fnana.2021.665803 
  4. Cheng Y, Haorah J. How does the brain remove its waste metabolites from within? Int J Physiol Pathophysiol Pharmacol. 2019 Dec 15;11(6):238-249. PMID: 31993098; PMCID: PMC6971497.
  5. Louveau A, Plog BA, Antila S, Alitalo K, Nedergaard M, Kipnis J. Understanding the functions and relationships of the glymphatic system and meningeal lymphatics. J Clin Invest. 2017 Sep 1;127(9):3210-3219. doi: 10.1172/JCI90603. Epub 2017 Sep 1. PMID: 28862640; PMCID: PMC5669566.
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