It uses a pulsed electrical current through the scalp and skull to help the brain eliminate harmful waste during deep sleep.
The goal isn’t just more restful sleep. Breakthrough discoveries made over the past decade have revealed that the brain has a powerful scrubbing system that kicks into high gear during deep sleep, flushing out harmful waste products. This nocturnal cleansing is part of the restorative power of sleep and boosts concentration, memory and motor skills.
However, as we age, this cleaning system becomes more sloppy and can begin to leave behind some of the metabolic detritus of the day, including the beta-amyloid proteins found in plaque that characterize Alzheimer’s disease and d. other devastating neurological disorders.
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The startling 2012 revelation of this previously unknown brain infrastructure – dubbed the glymphatic system – ushered in a new era of research and invention not only about sleep, but also about aging, dementia and brain injury. Nearly 300 research papers were published last year on the glymphatic system.
One such avenue of research leads to Tucker’s lab and the invention on his bed, called AugNOD for Augmented Neural Oscillation Driver. In prototype, it looks like a particularly severe brace with a toll transponder strapped to the top. Refined and lighter versions are in preparation.
By extending the duration of deep sleep, Tucker’s device aims to stimulate this nocturnal washout cycle. Someday soon, he hopes, something like this will be widely used by people to clear their heads – literally. “It’s a way to keep the brain young,” said Tucker, 75.
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The US military is interested in it. In October, the Department of Defense awarded Tucker, the University of North Carolina and several partner universities $4.25 million to explore a possible military application of the device to restore mental acuity to sleep-deprived soldiers on the battlefield.
Jeffrey Iliff, a member of the research team at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that within five years, consumer devices could allow anyone to track their brain-cleansing deep sleep.
“And I think in the next seven years we’re going to start to see approaches – like maybe this device, maybe pharmacological approaches – that can start to modulate it, that can maybe increase it if you want to try to increase it. “, Iliff said. “I think things are starting to move very quickly in this area as work begins to move into human populations.”
Iliff occupies an important place in the history of sleep science. He was the lead author of several papers that in 2012 began describing the brainwashing glymphatic system, based on work done at the University of Rochester with lead researcher Maiken Nedergaard.
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Iliff said when he joined his lab as a postdoctoral fellow, Nedergaard put him on a course to answer lingering questions about how fluid moves in the brain. What they discovered, hidden in plain sight, was a separate plumbing system wrapped around blood vessels in the head, pushing fluid into the brain.
Partly by peering through tiny holes in the skulls of mice, scientists theorize that human brain cells shrink during deep sleep, creating space for this fluid to squirt between them and give each cell a bath. .
This flushes out harmful protein waste produced by the brain, a tireless metabolic engine that never stops spinning in circles.
The volume of fluid flowing around cells could be measured in thimbles, Iliff said. Yet scientists are discovering that it is the key to human well-being.
“We think it’s relevant not only to Alzheimer’s disease, but we actually think it’s probably relevant to all sorts of neuroimmunological conditions like multiple sclerosis and neurovascular disorders like traumatic brain injury and stroke. brain,” Iliff said. “There is evidence that it is involved in headaches. There is evidence that it may be involved in mood disorders and other neuropsychiatric conditions like depression or bipolar disorder.
“It seems like it’s actually a lot more basic and fundamental than we thought,” Iliff said.
Sleep – specifically the electrical score the brain plays every night – is at the heart of the process.
Each type of sleep – from light stages to deep sleep, rapid eye movement or REM – is marked by a distinct pattern of brain waves, which scientists have been listening to for nearly a century with electroencephalography (EEG) .
The deepest sleep, just before REM, produces slow brain waves that help organize and store memories of the day and kick the glymphatic washout cycle into high gear.
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EEG tests show that as people age, they spend less time in deep sleep and more in lighter sleep.
“A lot of people, after 30, their deep sleep goes to hell,” Tucker said. “We think this may explain a lot of memory decline in older people, and it starts at age 30 – it’s not like you have to get old and decrepit.”
Tucker has been working on these issues for decades, founding a company in 1992 that pioneered a high-definition EEG worn like a wired hairnet. This company, Electrical Geodesics, was acquired for nearly $37 million by Philips in 2017.
His new venture, Brain Electrophysiology Lab, in Eugene, Oregon, seeks to not only monitor the electrical activity of the brain, but also to influence it. The work emulates findings from labs around the world that have begun coaxing the brain from one stage of sleep to another with tiny doses of current.
These artificial impulses mimic those produced in the head during deep sleep, and the brain follows their lead and begins to produce these slower brainwaves as well, delving into the deeper realms of sleep.
“If you change the electrical current going through the head, the neurons naturally synchronize with that,” Tucker said.
Tucker and others published a small, peer-reviewed study last May in which, by administering tiny electrical pulses for five minutes at a time to sleeping test subjects, they increased time in deep sleep by 13 percent. on average. He said that was enough to start making the brain more efficient at organizing memory and eliminating waste.
Applying small amounts of electricity to the brain, called transcranial electrical stimulation, is not new. An extensive 2017 review determined it appears to be safe, noting no serious side effects in over 18,000 sessions included in the survey. It has been touted to provide a host of possible neurological benefits, many of which remain unproven.
“Given the amount of research, the amount of promise, and the amount of media attention devoted to transcranial electrical stimulation, it hasn’t really translated into FDA-approved home devices for various indications,” said warned Anna Wexler, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the safety study.
Determining whether Tucker’s apparatus can actually compose the brain’s cleansing system is complicated by the difficulty of watching the glymphatic system in action.
Swati Rane Levendovszky, a member of the research team and professor of radiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, developed MRI techniques to observe and measure the velocity and flow of fluid washing the brain. If successful, the techniques could show whether Tucker’s device increases that flow.
It could also one day help doctors assess patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and dementia, she said. “All of these are associated with an inability to eliminate a type of toxic protein in the brain, and glymphatics is related to that,” Levendovszky said.
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Beyond diagnostics, the project will assess the potential to help these conditions, said Dawn Kernagis, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and co-lead of the project.
“If this device has an impact, we could see really positive effects in populations where they’ve seen an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease,” Kernagis said.
The possibility of broader applications has appealed to the military, along with the potential to improve the readiness of sleep-deprived soldiers and help heal the wounded, said Christopher Steele, director of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command. .
For the DOD, “the glymphatic system offers an opportunity to understand how chronic stressors can accumulate over time, but may also provide insight into faster recovery from certain types of brain injury,” said Steele.
The military is funding a side project that is also trying to develop a brain-cleansing device, led by Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist Hospital.
As the military research project progresses, a separate company founded by Tucker is working to begin a Food and Drug Administration trial of a consumer version of his cap to increase deep sleep. (Other members of the research team have no financial interest in Tucker’s device or his businesses, they said.)
“I want to be a consumer of this sleep therapy device,” Tucker said. “I want to be sure that for the next decade I can maintain the best possible function for an increasingly older man.”