Research Update: Obstructive sleep apnea causes brain damage

by Americare Respiratory Services

Sleep apnea sufferers experience continuous breathing interruptions while sleeping.  The gold standard for treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a CPAP or BiPAP machine, which delivers pressurized air through a face or nasal mask.  The mask and tubing connect to a machine that regulates the air pressure.  The pressurized air prevents the airway from collapsing, which maintains constant flow of oxygen to the body and brain. 

When not enough oxygen gets to the brain, it is not hard to imagine how the brain is affected by sleep apnea.  Mood changes like depression and anxiety are symptoms of sleep apena as well as memory loss.  High blood pressure in patients with sleep apnea is also common.  These symptoms can be explained by the way sleep apnea damages the brain. 

The combination of high blood pressure and reduced oxygen can cause brain damage by breaching the blood-brain barrier.  Studies have shown how high blood pressure alone can alter brain stem function.  CPAP treatment is believed to reverse the effect on brain stem function.  This theory was recently proven in a small study published by the Journal of Neurphysiology.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroimaging, the blood-brain barrier becomes more permeable in patients with obstructive sleep apnea compared to those who do not have sleep apnea.  This is the first study to show this affect in patients with OSA. They used a special MRI technique to observe changes in the brain.  The authors conclude that medication to restore the blood-brain barrier should be given to patients with OSA in addition to CPAP therapy.