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Department of Defense is giving millions to UNC researchers to study ‘brain cleansing’

·3 min read

Could an experimental device improve the way members of the military sleep — and potentially recover via a method called “brain cleansing?” Researchers out of UNC-Chapel Hill are being tasked by the Department of Defense to find out.

The military plans to give $4.3 million to UNC and three other institutions to study the effectiveness of wearing what is effectively a headband that sends electric stimulation to the brain while sleeping.

The device, called an Augmented Neural Oscillation Driver, or AugNOD, was designed by a company in Oregon, and researchers believe the electric stimulation it delivers can trigger improved brain cleansing.

Brain cleansing is a relatively new term, and it refers to the body’s natural ability to clear the brain of metabolic waste through the glymphatic system.

If you’ve never heard of that system, you’re likely not the only one. The glymphatic system was only discovered less than a decade ago. In 2013, Science Magazine called its discovery one of the top 10 discoveries of the year.

Scientists believe the system is key to the restorative function of sleep. When we sleep, the glymphatic system allows cerebral spinal fluid to surround the brain, said Dawn Kernagis, an assistant professor in UNC’s Department of Neurosurgery.

“Think of it kinda like a washing machine,” she said. “The brain is able to clear out metabolic waste, and flush it out through the rest of our lymphatic system.”

The better sleep you get, scientists believe, the more active that washing — or brain cleansing — can be.

“We think that foggy feeling you get when you don’t get enough sleep, it could be tied to that system not functioning properly,” Kernagis said. A cumulative lack of sleep, she added, could further impair this system, and some studies suggest could lead to further neurodegenerative issues down the line.

It is easy to see why the military could be interested in the idea. Soldiers regularly work strange hours — sometimes extending for days at at time. This can get in the way of maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and potentially undermining performance. And with soldiers routinely forced to make life-or-death decisions, a clear mind is crucial.

A lack of sleep “reduces cognitive capabilities,” Kernagis said. “You’re just not as sharp. Your decision making takes a little bit longer.”

The AugNOD device is being put through trials at UNC, the University of Washington and Oregon Health & Science University.

The trial will study how the device affects 90 different people, with the first results expected to come back next year.

The AugNOD was created by Don Tucker, an emeritus professor at the University of Oregon and CEO of the Brain Electrophysiology Laboratory.

The band works by synchronizing electrical currents with the sleep slow waves that occur during the deepest stages of sleeping. Brain waves, the electrical signals that help the brain function, are their slowest during deep sleep. At that point, the brain becomes its least responsive to external stimuli.

Scientists believe it is when those brain waves slow down that the glymphatic system is most active.

Kernagis said she believes the device could have wide-ranging applications outside of the military.

“I think there’s also huge implications for shift workers and other individuals who just don’t get proper sleep,” she said, “which is probably a good portion of the population.”

If the trial is a success, the next step, she said, could be to study how the device affects people with head injuries or other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Individuals with a head injury, for example, their (glymphatic) system might not be functioning properly,” Kernagis said. “They’ve shown in animals that when they have a head injury, the system does not function properly, so you get accumulation of that metabolic waste.”

That could be leading to an inability of the brain to heal from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, that is found in people with repeated concussions, like football players and soldiers.

“If this works ... it could also have implications for people with other neurological conditions, such as traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias,” Kernagis said.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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