Sleep Research Earns FAU Scientist ‘Alzheimer’s Association’ Award

Sleep Patterns, Alzheimer's Disease, Dementia, Preventing AD, AD, Alzheimer's Association, Award, Fellowship, Neuroscience, Sleep Quality, Thalamus, Monitoring Sleep, Candidate Drugs

Poor sleep quality is associated with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias from early stages.

By gisele galoustian | 10/6/2021

Florida Atlantic University’s Carmen Varela, Ph.D., recently received the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Research Fellowship to Promote Diversity” award to investigate the relationship between sleep patterns and one’s overall brain health. Poor sleep quality is associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias from early stages and is thought to contribute to the progression of AD. With this three-year, $149,871 award, Varela will develop new indicators to monitor quality of sleep in deep brain structures affected in AD.

“Sleep disruption is not only distressful for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, it’s disruptive for their caregivers,” said Varela, an assistant professor of psychology, FAU Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, John D. MacArthur Campus at Jupiter, and a member of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute. “This Alzheimer’s Association fellowship will support the development of non-invasive methods to monitor sleep quality, which will provide a key advance to assess if new candidate drugs truly restore sleep quality in the brain.”

Varela’s research centers on the role of the thalamus, a critical hub, which regulates sleep-dependent functions, such as the brain’s capacity to stabilize memories while we rest. The thalamus is interconnected both anatomically and functionally with several cognitive areas. It is a key player in coordinating memory transfer from one region to another for long-term preservation, and also routing information into different brain regions when individuals are awake. Cellular activity within the thalamus may be critical to ensuring a restful sleep, and to prepare people to tackle cognitive demands during wakefulness.

Varela will use animal models to develop indicators of sleep brain quality that are based on existing technologies, some of which could be employed at home, such as fitness trackers. These new indicators could speed up the development of sleep treatments to improve the quality of life and the progression of AD. Because sleep disruption also occurs in other dementias, the indicators developed could positively impact additional diseases.

The Alzheimer’s Association, the largest nonprofit of AD research, funds brilliant and innovative early-career scientists such as Varela with the hope that these projects will generate new data and strategies that will lead to future grant applications to government and other funding sources, including larger grants available through the Alzheimer’s Association. The Alzheimer’s Association makes it a high priority to support researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Varela earned her doctorate in computational neuroscience from The University of Chicago and completed her postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Having lost her grandfather to AD, her connection to the disease is more than just professional. 

“There are changes to sleep that may occur very early on in the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias that actually predict how the symptoms will evolve,” said Varela. “I am hopeful that this research will open the door to non-invasive methods that we can use during sleep to try to predict – or perhaps even prevent – the disease and diminish its evolution to a degree.”

The sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, AD kills more Americans than diabetes and more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. More than 6 million Americans are living with the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. By 2050, the number of people with AD is projected to increase to 12.7 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease.

In Florida alone, more than 580,000 people are currently battling AD – the second-highest prevalence of the disease in the nation.

The Alzheimer’s Association is the largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer’s research in the world. The Association is currently investing more than $250 million in more than 750 active projects in 39 countries spanning six continents. The Research Grant and Fellowship Awards are part of the broader Alzheimer’s Association International Research Grant Program.

Carmen Varela, Ph.D.

Carmen Varela, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology, FAU Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and a member of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute.