Sleep Apnea: Could It Harm Brain Function?

First Posted: Feb 15, 2016 11:27 PM EST

Sleep apnea is estimated to affect one in 15 adults--an issue marked by interrupted breathing during sleep, which can prevent individuals from getting a full night's rest and even result in problems with concentration, memory and decision-making. Some studies also link the issue to depression and stress.

New findings published in the Journal of Sleep Research show that those with sleep apnea have significant changes in two important brain chemicals that may impact their day-to-day lives.

"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," said Paul Macey, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor at the UCLA School of Nursing, in a news release.

During the study, researchers examined levels of the neurotransmitters glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, known as GABA (a chemical messenger that acts as an inhibitor in the brain that can slow things down and keep people calm.) Glutamate, by contrast, is like an accelerator; when glutamate levels are high, the brain is working in a state of stress, and consequently doesn't function as effectively. High levels of glutamate can also be toxic to nerves and neurons.

Both neurotransmitters are located in a region of the brain called the insula, which integrates signals from higher brain regions that regulate emotion, thinking and physical functions, such as blood pressure and perspiration.

Findings revealed that individuals with sleep apnea had lower levels of GABA and unusually high levels of glutamate.

"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."

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