Sleep plays a critical role in healing traumatic brain injury, according to a new study of military veterans published in the Journal of Neurotrauma. The research used a new MRI technique developed at Oregon Health & Science University to evaluate the enlargement of perivascular spaces that surround blood vessels in the brain. Enlargement of these spaces occurs in aging and is associated with the development of dementia, according to OHSU.

The study used data collected from a group of 56 veterans enrolled at the Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center at the VA Puget Sound between 2011 and 2019. Using the new MRI technique, researchers measured changes in the brain’s perivascular spaces, which are part of the brain’s waste clearance system known as the glymphatic system. During sleep, this brain-wide network clears away metabolic proteins that would otherwise build up in the brain, according to OHSU.

“We were able to very precisely measure this structure and count the number, location and diameter of channels,” said lead author Juan Piantino, MD, MCR, assistant professor of pediatrics (neurology) in the OHSU School of Medicine and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “This study suggests sleep may play an important role in clearing waste from the brain after traumatic brain injury – and if you don’t sleep very well, you might not clean your brain as efficiently.”

“Imagine your brain is generating all this waste and everything is working fine,” Piantino said. “Now you get a concussion. The brain generates much more waste that it has to remove, but the system becomes plugged.”

“This has huge implications for the armed forces as well as civilians,” Piantino added. “Longer term, we can start thinking about using this method to predict who is going to be at higher risk for cognitive problems including dementia,” he said.

Source: Oregon Health & Science University