Wheaton College Students and Professor Present at Alzheimer's Association International Conference

August 18, 2017

Most college students are familiar with the brain fog that follows an all-nighter or two, but junior Applied Health Science majors Amanda Shim and Megan Hogan spent the past year researching the cognitive effects of sleep disruption on a much more scientific level.

This week, Shim, Hogan, and Applied Health Science Instructor Dr. O. Michael Bubu presented their findings at the prestigious Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, the world’s largest conference dedicated to advancing dementia science.

Under Bubu’s direction, Shim and Hogan combed through vast databases of clinical research data to learn more about the link between sleep disturbances such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

The team utilized the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) to conduct their research. The ADNI’s databases contain brain scans, cognitive assessments, biomarkers, and demographic information from Alzheimer’s disease patients, individuals with mild cognitive impairment, and control groups.

Their research focused on the buildup of amyloid in the brain. Amyloid is a protein that accumulates between nerve cells and contributes to cell death and tissue loss in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

“Using PET scans taken over the course of three years, we studied amyloid buildup and were able to compare the brain scans of individuals with obstructive sleep apnea with those who did not have the disease,” Hogan says. “At the beginning of the study, individuals with OSA already had a greater amyloid volume, and we found that amyloid accumulated in the brain at a faster rate for individuals with OSA.”

“Our research found that obstructive sleep apnea can possibly accelerate or worsen the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” Bubu says. “These results highlight the importance of diagnosing and treating sleep disordered breathing, especially in people at risk for dementia and people with mild cognitive impairment.”

Shim, Hogan, and Bubu’s work suggests that treating obstructive sleep apnea may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and slow the rate at which cognitive impairment progresses, a positive development for the treatment of a disease that currently afflicts more than 5 million Americans.

“When we’re talking about a disease that has no cure, research about prevention and slowing the progression are important sources of hope,” Hogan says.

Shim says that the research has also introduced new questions for the group.

“We would like to learn more about the underlying mechanisms of amyloid build up and the effect of CPAP machines, which are used to treat sleep apnea, on the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” Shim explains.

During the upcoming academic year, Shim and Hogan will continue to work with Bubu to prepare their findings for submission to scientific journals. After graduating from Wheaton, both plan to enter the medical field. Shim hopes to attend medical school, and Hogan plans to become a physician assistant.

More information about the Applied Health Science program at Wheaton College is available at wheaton.edu/ahs.