NREM sleep as a novel protective cognitive reserve factor in the face of Alzheimer's disease pathology

BMC Med. 2023 May 3;21(1):156. doi: 10.1186/s12916-023-02811-z.


Background: Alzheimer's disease (AD) pathology impairs cognitive function. Yet some individuals with high amounts of AD pathology suffer marked memory impairment, while others with the same degree of pathology burden show little impairment. Why is this? One proposed explanation is cognitive reserve i.e., factors that confer resilience against, or compensation for the effects of AD pathology. Deep NREM slow wave sleep (SWS) is recognized to enhance functions of learning and memory in healthy older adults. However, that the quality of NREM SWS (NREM slow wave activity, SWA) represents a novel cognitive reserve factor in older adults with AD pathology, thereby providing compensation against memory dysfunction otherwise caused by high AD pathology burden, remains unknown.

Methods: Here, we tested this hypothesis in cognitively normal older adults (N = 62) by combining 11C-PiB (Pittsburgh compound B) positron emission tomography (PET) scanning for the quantification of β-amyloid (Aβ) with sleep electroencephalography (EEG) recordings to quantify NREM SWA and a hippocampal-dependent face-name learning task.

Results: We demonstrated that NREM SWA significantly moderates the effect of Aβ status on memory function. Specifically, NREM SWA selectively supported superior memory function in individuals suffering high Aβ burden, i.e., those most in need of cognitive reserve (B = 2.694, p = 0.019). In contrast, those without significant Aβ pathological burden, and thus without the same need for cognitive reserve, did not similarly benefit from the presence of NREM SWA (B = -0.115, p = 0.876). This interaction between NREM SWA and Aβ status predicting memory function was significant after correcting for age, sex, Body Mass Index, gray matter atrophy, and previously identified cognitive reserve factors, such as education and physical activity (p = 0.042).

Conclusions: These findings indicate that NREM SWA is a novel cognitive reserve factor providing resilience against the memory impairment otherwise caused by high AD pathology burden. Furthermore, this cognitive reserve function of NREM SWA remained significant when accounting both for covariates, and factors previously linked to resilience, suggesting that sleep might be an independent cognitive reserve resource. Beyond such mechanistic insights are potential therapeutic implications. Unlike many other cognitive reserve factors (e.g., years of education, prior job complexity), sleep is a modifiable factor. As such, it represents an intervention possibility that may aid the preservation of cognitive function in the face of AD pathology, both present moment and longitudinally.

Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Cognitive reserve; Memory; Resilience; Sleep; Slow wave activity; β-amyloid pathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease* / pathology
  • Amyloid beta-Peptides
  • Cognitive Dysfunction*
  • Cognitive Reserve*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Sleep
  • Sleep, Slow-Wave*


  • Amyloid beta-Peptides