June 14, 2021

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Dishwashers and Dementia: The Brain System You’ve Never Heard Of

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This essay, by Maggie Bell, age 16, from Lakeside High School in Atlanta, is one of the top 11 winners of The Learning Network’s second annual STEM Writing Contest, for which we received 3,741 entries. You can find the work of all of our student winners here.


Dishwashers and Dementia: The Brain System You’ve Never Heard Of

The leaning tower of dishes. A greasy conglomeration caked in tomato sauce and fat that is the byproduct of a week’s worth of eating. During the day the brain builds up its own pile of dishes caked with toxins, and runs its personal dishwasher — the glymphatic system.

As if hitting the “begin wash” button, electrical waves, known as slow waves, pulse throughout the brain every 20 seconds. Research suggests that these electrical waves alter blood flow in the brain, creating extra space that is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the dish soap. CSF flows between membranes, washing away toxins that are produced during brain function. Just as we are too busy during the day to wash pots and pans, while awake, our brains surge with activity. With little space for CSF to fill, less clearing of toxins occurs. Laura Lewis of Boston University unearthed this method of waste removal and its correlation to brain health in a study just two years ago.

A lack of proper sleep limits the glymphatic system, causing grime to build up and impede brain function. While it may seem that the worst effect due to lack of sleep is putting salt instead of sugar into your coffee, improper functioning of the glymphatic system could be linked to Alzheimer’s and other cognitive degenerative diseases. Patients with Alzheimer’s have an abundance of the toxin beta-amyloid in the brain, a buildup William Jagust, a neuroscientist at the University of California Berkeley, calls “a vicious cycle where amyloid decreases sleep, and decreased sleep results in more amyloid.” Dr. Jagust anticipates that the functioning of the glymphatic system could be a factor in the development of Alzheimer’s and that quality sleep may be a preventive measure. As we age the slow waves that trigger the cleansing cycle decrease, giving a possible explanation for cognitive decline over the years.

Research involving the glymphatic system could lead to a better understanding of psychiatric disorders, as changes in the brain’s electrical impulses and sleep disturbances are common characteristics. Readings on the functioning of the glymphatic system may even serve as a future diagnostic tool or indicator of the likelihood of disease onset. With 51.5 million American adults suffering from a mental disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health, enough people to fill Yankee Stadium over 940 times, this research is promising. While follow-up research is done to confirm the relationship between slow waves and the glymphatic system, Maiken Nedergaard, a neurologist at the University of Rochester, says, “Maybe the most important take-home message is that sleep is a serious thing.” So go ahead, give yourself a cleanse.

Works Cited

Hamilton, Jon. “How Deep Sleep May Help The Brain Clear Alzheimer’s Toxins.” NPR, 31 Oct. 2019.

How Sleep Clears the Brain.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 28 Oct. 2013.

Konnikova, Maria. “Goodnight. Sleep Clean.” The New York Times, 11 Jan. 2014.

Makin, Simon. “Deep Sleep Gives Your Brain a Deep Clean.” Scientific American, 1 Nov., 2019.

Mental Illness.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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