Perhaps you’ve paired with a workmate in a hotel room on a business trip and only got a couple of hours sleep because the other fellow has sleep apnea. Worse yet, your spouse has the sleeping disorder. If you wake feeling listless, tired and cranky the next day, think how the severe sleep apnea sufferer feels. Relentless snoring that sounds like cutting a log with a handsaw is distracting enough, but when snores are followed by pauses in breathing that are followed by loud snorts that wake them as frequently as 30 times per hour it’s not difficult to understand how it might affect their workday. We can leave the room, stuff a towel under the door In another room, but they can’t walk away from it.
Such a condition is clinically diagnosed as sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that restricts the afflicted person to shallow breathing punctuated by pauses during which they don’t breathe at all. While previous studies acknowledge the potential dangers of apnea during sleep, a new study published in The Journal of Sleep Research, finds apnea sufferers also suffer an adverse imbalance of brain chemicals during their awake time.
People with sleep apnea often report issues with memory, decision–making, depression, stress, and poor concentration during waking time. Researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing conducting a study to better understand why people affected by sleep apnea develop these symptoms discovered that they are related to a specific chemical imbalance of the brain. The research focused on a brain region called the insula that regulates emotion, thinking, and physical functions like blood pressure and perspiration. Their research revealed people with sleep apnea had irregular levels of two important brain chemicals capable of having a large effect on waking behaviors and mood: glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Scientists say GABA acts as an inhibitor in the brain, affecting endorphins and mood by slowing things down like a natural tranquilizer that calms emotions and senses. However, glutamate is a stimulator that when levels are high causes the brain to stress. When levels of glutamate are unusually high it causes decreased brain function and may also be harmful to nerves and neurons.
“In previous studies, we’ve seen structural changes in the brain due to sleep apnea, but in this study we actually found substantial differences in these two chemicals that influence how the brain is working,” Paul Macey, the lead researcher on the study and associate professor at UCLA Nursing, said in a press release. He added that, in some ways, this is a good thing. “In contrast with damage, if something is working differently, we can potentially fix it.”
The cogs of clinical science turn slowly but the researchers hope to continue their work on sleep apnea, with future studies set to determine whether treating sleep apnea would reverse structural changes in patient’s brains. In the meantime, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure is the leading therapy for apnea patients. However the therapy, called CPAP, involves patients having to wear a face or nasal mask during sleep, which in of itself can be a distraction from getting a good night’s sleep.
“It is rare to have this size of difference in biological measures,” Macey said. “We expected an increase in the glutamate, because it is a chemical that causes damage in high doses and we have already seen brain damage from sleep apnea. What we were surprised to see was the drop in GABA. That made us realize that there must be a reorganization of how the brain is working.”
Researchers plan more studies to develop a therapy that would treat sleep apnea and its symptoms in a different less invasive way than CPAP masks. Their findings regarding the imbalance of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in patients suffering from clinical sleep apnea could be a milestone in the development of a new and better therapy that treats the source not just the symtoms of the disorder.