If Sleeping On Back Increases Risks Of Alzheimer’s Disease, What Does It Do To Our Babies?

In The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers, led by Stony Brook University’s professor of anesthesiology Helene Benveniste, claim that an unnatural sleep position might lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Sleeping in the side position, rather than on one’s back or stomach, appears to reduce the chance that an adult will develop a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers focused on how sleep positioning affects the normal functioning of the glymphatic pathway. This is the system that clears harmful substances and waste from the brain that could harm it.

This incredible research begs the question, “What implications, if any, does this have on babies?” Since 1994, the anti-SIDS campaign first known as “Back-To-Sleep” and ultimately “Safe To Sleep” has been urging parents to make sure that infants sleep on their backs. Many a worried mother has woken up and re-positioned her infant after discovering the baby she put to sleep on his back had wiggled onto his side while sleeping. Contraptions have even been produced that help keep a sleeping infant from rolling onto his side.

Does the discovery that back-sleeping might prevent proper waste removal from the brain shed any light on the neurological health of our children too? The researchers point out that side sleeping is the single most popular sleep position for both humans and animals. Have we done any disservice to our children by fighting this more natural sleep position?

The glymphatic pathway is more efficient during sleep, according to Medical News Today, and among the toxins this system clears are tau proteins. Increased levels of tau protein are known to be found in the cerebrospinal fluid of children with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), according to a 2014 paper published in the medical journal Brain & Development. A paper focusing on children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) published in Pediatric Blood & Cancer incidentally found that increases in tau protein in children being treated for ALL was linked to decreases in cognitive functioning, specifically decreased “verbal abilities measured on an intellectual scale.” Tau proteins are found in excess in the cerebrospinal fluid of children suffering from West syndrome, a type of epilepsy that occurs in about one in 2,500 to 3,000 children.

Another toxin cleared from the brain by the glymphatic pathway is the amyloid beta peptide, according to the Alzheimer’s disease researchers. Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative reported that amyloid-beta peptide accumulation in the brain has been linked to autism and related disorders. The Foundation also reported that a 2012 study “found more of the peptide in four postmortem brains from individuals with fragile X syndrome than in those from seven controls.” What’s more, individuals with autism related to a particular gene duplication in a certain area of the brain have about eight times more of the amyloid-beta peptide in the amygdala. Children with some other forms of autism showed five times more of this peptide than controls. Parents of children with autism have speculated about a link between the Back-To-Sleep campaign and the rise in autism on the sidelines for years.

Last year, a look into impaired glymphatic clearance showed that age was an important factor. Additionally, older research into glymphatic blockage from lack of sleep in general, led researchers to surmise that a lack of sleep during childhood is not likely to have a major impact on Alzheimer’s disease decades later, but can we afford to overlook even the slightest possibility that the position we put our babies down to sleep in might have at least some impact on their cognitive health?

According to the Safe To Sleep campaign, nearly 4,000 infants still die “unexpectedly during sleep time from SIDS, accidental suffocation, or unknown causes.” TheHuffington Post reported that while SIDS rates have come down since the campaign was launched in 1994, rates of those other sleep-related infant deaths have increased. Overall, combined Sudden Unexplained Infant Death has declined since the campaign’s launch, but the most significant decline in SUID and SIDS cases was seen prior to the launch of the Back-To-Sleep campaign, according to CDC data. SIDS researchers are still looking into co-factors for the tragic infant deaths, and most recently, a massive retrospective look at decades of SIDS data found that heat waves have a strong link to SIDS cases. A report that was published a decade after the Back-To-Sleep campaign began noted delayed motor development in babies by six-months if they always slept on their backs, but those authors added, “Recommendations promoting supine sleep positioning have reduced the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and should in no way be modified by the results of this study.”

In light of the new information about how the glymphatic pathway is affected by back sleeping and some uncertainty regarding SIDS co-factors, shouldn’t we at least consider whether or not the new research into sleep positioning and Alzheimer’s disease has implications for our tiniest loved ones too?

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