Brain damage may explain problems related to sleep apnea such as memory loss and mood changes.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
AASM | 03/26/2009
Studies show that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) affects much more than just your sleep. It can even damage your brain.
A recent brain imaging study from France involved 16 adults. Each of them had just been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
In numerous brain regions the study found a loss of “gray matter”. This is brain tissue that contains fibers and nerve cell bodies. There also was a decrease in brain metabolism.
The authors suggest that these changes may explain some of the impairments that often occur in people with sleep apnea. Examples include attention lapses and memory loss. The study was published in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Sleep Research.
The results are similar to those found by a research team from UCLA. Their study was published in Neuroscience Letters in June 2008.
They reported that people with sleep apnea have tissue loss in the “mammillary bodies.” These are brain regions that help store memory.
In July 2008 the UCLA team published another brain imaging study in the journal Sleep. It involved 41 people with moderate to severe sleep apnea. It also included 69 control subjects matched by age.
Results show that people with sleep apnea have extensive alterations in “white matter.” This is nerve tissue in the brain. It contains fibers that are insulated with myelin - a white, fatty sheath.
The structural changes appear in brain regions that help control mood and memory. These regions also play a role in adjusting your blood pressure. Damage also was found in fiber pathways that connect these brain regions.
What causes the brain damage? The authors suggest that oxygen, blood flow and blood pressure may be involved.
Sleep apnea involves breathing pauses that can occur hundreds of times during a night of sleep. These pauses can produce drastic changes in oxygen levels.
These breathing pauses also reduce blood flow in the brain. People with sleep apnea also are at risk for high blood pressure. Both of these conditions create a potential for brain tissue damage.
Dr. Ronald Harper of UCLA said that the studies show how important it is for sleep apnea to be treated. CPAP is the most common treatment for sleep apnea.
“The findings make it all the more imperative that OSA be treated as soon as possible to prevent further injury,” Harper told the AASM. “The long-term effects of OSA are terribly damaging to memory and thinking processes.”
Can treatment reverse the brain damage caused by sleep apnea? The authors are uncertain if the changes are permanent.
But studies show that CPAP does help your heart. It may even save your life.
Learn more about the benefits of CPAP therapy.
Visit the Sleep Education Blog to find links to the studies mentioned here.