Sleepy Flies Help Understand Alzheimer's Brains

Fruit flies can shed light on sleep disorders in Alzheimer’s patients.
Karin Heineman, ISTV Executive Producer

Of the millions of Americans who are 65 years old and older, approximately five million have Alzheimer’s disease. If current trends continue, sixteen million will have the disease by 2050.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, and so far irreversible, type of dementia that slowly degrades memory and cognitive functions. A lesser known and somewhat understudied effect of Alzheimer's is its impact on sleep patterns.

Now, biologists are using fruit flies to help study sleep disorders caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

“Believe it or not, fruit flies are a really great type of organism to study sleep, and that’s because like humans, they are awake during the day, if they’re normal, and they sleep during the night,” said Felice Elefant, a biologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

To test the physiological effects of Alzheimer's on human sleep patterns, researchers altered the sleep patterns of fruit flies to follow the sleep patterns of many Alzheimer’s patients who sleep more during the day but remain wide awake at night.

Certain proteins in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients do not work correctly, causing sleep problems. But researchers found that if they boost the properly working copies of the protein in fruit flies, their sleep cycles return to normal: awake during the day and asleep at night.

“We keyed in on a protein that we feel is very important for sleep and that is defective in [patients with] Alzheimer’s disease,”Elefant said.

The next step is to see if a drug that boosts this protein has any impact on sleep patterns.

“We design drugs around this protein to target it and make it more active in patients that either don’t have enough of this protein or they have the protein but the protein is just not working properly,” said Elefant.

Researchers will first test drugs on fruit flies by putting the medication in their food.


Get Inside The Science:

An Alzheimer’s Cure – For Fruit Flies

The Elefant Lab

Felice Elefant, Drexel University

Author Bio & Story Archive

Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.